Trump Stokes Fear In The Suburbs, But Few Low-Income Families Ever Make It There

Oct 28, 2020
Originally published on October 28, 2020 6:23 pm

In an effort to appeal to suburban voters, President Trump has been promising to keep low-income housing out of their neighborhoods, saying it should be harder for families in need of affordable housing to "invade" the suburbs.

But 50 years after Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, the reality is families with low incomes have never flooded into the suburbs. In fact, few have made it there.

The majority of housing built with government subsidies is still built in high poverty areas, research shows. And what's more, fewer than 14 percent of families with children who have Section 8 housing vouchers are able to move to low poverty neighborhoods — historically, the suburbs.

The vouchers, which pay the difference between a modest rent and what someone can afford, are supposed to be a ticket out of poverty. But in many metropolitan areas like Dallas it hasn't worked out that way.

NPR and the PBS series Frontline began following several families in 2016 who were trying to use vouchers to move to neighborhoods with good schools, jobs and low poverty. In Dallas that generally means the area's wealthy northern enclaves, or a few scattered neighborhoods in the south. None of the families found that the vouchers lived up to the promise.

"I've been to Oak Cliff. I've been to South Dallas. I've been to Pleasant Grove. I've been way down south," said Farryn Giles in 2016, who was homeless and trying to find a place for herself and her son. "Nobody wants my voucher."

Another mother, C'Artis Harris, who had to sleep with her kids at times in her van in store parking lots, drove to and called dozens of places in the northern suburbs with no luck.

"Maybe it's meant for me to live in the 'hood," she said four years ago.

Today, both women live in public or subsidized housing in areas of high poverty. Giles says she felt lucky to get a spot in Dallas public housing, so at least she hasn't been homeless.

After a year of homelessness, living in shelters and on people's floors with her kids, Harris finally ended up in a federally subsidized housing complex. She, like Giles, turned in her Section 8 voucher when she couldn't find anyone to take it.

"It was so painful to finally, finally get to have [a] Section 8 voucher," and then not be able to use it, Harris says.

They were so excited when they first got it, she says.

"We get to move! Yay!" she remembers thinking. "No, no you don't. You get to go and be homeless again and live in shelters and hotels and live in people's houses."

She says the government subsidized housing complex she lives in now is hard for the kids. There are no playgrounds, no activities, few grocery stores and little grass.

In 2016, NPR began following Farryn Giles as she searched for housing that would accept her Section 8 voucher. Today, she and her son live in public housing. Giles says she felt lucky to get a spot there.
Laura Sullivan / NPR

"It's been chaotic," she says. "It's a lot. Daily. Crazy, chaotic arguments. Gun play. Drugs."

Ever since Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, the federal government has been trying to undo a century of racist and unfair housing policies. Those policies gave white people government-backed mortgages and literal highways to prime real estate — and redlined African Americans and people of color into less desirable urban cores.

But 50 years later, while the country is more diverse than ever, studies show housing remains deeply segregated. African-American homeownership rates, which had shown some improvement, backslid with the 2008 recession. They still haven't recovered.

Now, because of COVID-19, evictions are expected to skyrocket.

Five years ago, the Obama administration created a rule that required cities and towns to try to eliminate housing segregation, and tied federal funding to their efforts. But the Trump administration recently reversed that rule, and changed another regulation which affects when people can sue if they face discrimination. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson said the rules were overly bureaucratic.

Without them, though, housing advocates say moving low-income families into the suburbs, and getting affordable housing developments built there will be much harder. It was already pretty difficult.

Developer Terri Anderson stands in front of the rental office of the apartment complex she fought to get built near two wealthy Dallas suburbs in 2016. Back then, Anderson faced fierce opposition to the project, which has units set aside for Section 8 voucher holders.
Terri Anderson

Four years ago, developer Terri Anderson faced tough local opposition when she was trying to build an apartment complex with some units set aside for Section 8 voucher holders on the line between two wealthy Dallas suburbs: McKinney and Frisco.

"The city actually called a public hearing for our property and about 250 angry residents showed up," she said at the time. "Our superintendent has been threatened. Police officers blocked our entrance."

Back then, Frisco officials said the city's opposition wasn't about race or poverty. It was about building permits, they said.

Now four years later, the complex has been built.

On a recent day on the site, Anderson walked out of the newly completed rental office of a rustic modern apartment complex, with stone walls, a small movie theater, and gym.

"We did [it]," Anderson said, waving a hand at the complex. "132 units. The greatest thing about affordable housing is that it doesn't look affordable."

Sitting down at a picnic table near the playground, she said it's still difficult to believe how hard the residents in the surrounding neighborhoods fought her.

C'Artis Harris, second from left, with her family at their home in Dallas in 2020. After a year of homelessness, Harris finally ended up in a federally subsidized housing complex in 2017. She turned in her Section 8 voucher when she couldn't find anyone to take it.
Laura Sullivan / NPR

She said the neighbors complained that schools would be overcrowded, the local property values would go down and there would be too much traffic. Anderson says none of those things materialized.

According to Zillow, real estate prices have appreciated 13 percent since 2016, and in 2018 Money magazine named Frisco the number one best place to live in America.

Anderson says as soon as she opened up the building to renters, she was surprised that the people who showed up to fill the low income units were school teachers, day care workers, even a couple administrative workers for the city that tried to keep the development out.

And she says, except for one guy who still drives around the complex staring at people, these days everyone in the community seems to have gotten over it. The community's online message board, once filled with negative comments, has died down, and people seem to have gotten on with their lives.

"It's prejudice, honestly, that is preventing the housing from being developed," she says.

Anderson's project was a few years too late for C'Artis Harris and her kids. Harris still wants good schools, parks, peace and quiet but she's not sure how to find them, or if she ever will. Dallas' wealthy suburbs don't hold the promise they once did.

"I think they ruined it for me," she says. "I think I'd rather go somewhere else where I'm accepted. You know?"

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In a last-ditch appeal to suburban voters, President Trump has promised to keep low-income housing out of their neighborhoods, essentially by making it harder for poor people with government subsidies to move to wealthy areas. But moving to the suburbs has never been easy for low-income families. Four years ago, NPR and PBS Frontline followed several families and a developer trying to overcome some of these barriers. NPR's Laura Sullivan checked back in with them to find out what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR SLAMMING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, my God.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Are you (laughter) - are you C'Artis' kids?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Yes. When I saw you guys, you were little. You were just little (laughter).

The last time I saw C'Artis Harris and her kids was the fall of 2016, and they had just become homeless. Harris stood on the edge of a parking lot as a repo truck pulled away with their van. It was where she and her kids slept when they had nowhere else to go. I remember Harris turning away so her kids wouldn't see her cry. Today she's waving with a big smile as I pull into a different Dallas parking lot. This time, she's standing in front of a government-subsidized housing complex.

C'ARTIS HARRIS: It's been like - what? - three years.

SULLIVAN: I know. It's been four.

HARRIS: You know, remember we lost the van?

SULLIVAN: Yes.

HARRIS: We never got it back.

SULLIVAN: What was difficult to understand about the day Harris lost the van was that just months earlier, she had basically hit a jackpot of sorts. She'd landed a Section 8 housing voucher. It's supposed to be a ticket out. And that's what Harris wanted - out of poverty. The voucher pays the difference between an area's average rent and what you can afford to pay. But the dark truth about the decades-old voucher program is that poor people are not flooding into the suburbs. Research shows only 14% of families with kids are able to use vouchers to move to neighborhoods with good schools and jobs in low poverty. Historically, that is the suburbs. And while Harris called and called and drove around and reached out to every apartment complex she could in Dallas' wealthy northern enclaves, no one was willing to take her voucher.

HARRIS: No, nobody, and it was so painful to finally, finally have - like, oh, we get a Section 8 voucher. We get a house. We get to move, yay. No (laughter).

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

HARRIS: No, you don't. You get to go and be homeless again and live in shelters and live in, like, hotels and people's houses.

SULLIVAN: The voucher couldn't help her the day the van was towed because she couldn't find anyone to take it. And she says in the year that followed, she and her kids lived out of backpacks, scrambling at night to find a place to sleep, washing up at McDonald's before school. Until finally, three years ago, one of the last government housing safety nets there is finally caught her. A spot in federally subsidized housing here in a high-poverty neighborhood opened up.

What's the last four years been like for you?

HARRIS: It's been up and down. It's been chaotic. It's been a roller coaster, so I just take it with stride.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Do they like it here?

HARRIS: They do. They like it 'cause they can play with other children.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

HARRIS: They don't like it 'cause of the violence, but...

SULLIVAN: Is there violence here?

HARRIS: It's a lot.

SULLIVAN: Really?

HARRIS: Daily - crazy, chaotic arguments, gunplay, drugs. Like, it's just chaotic.

SULLIVAN: Ever since Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, the federal government has been trying to undo a century of racist and unfair housing policies that gave white people government-backed mortgages and literal highways to prime land and redlined African Americans and people of color to urban cores. But 50 years later, while the country is more diverse than ever, housing remains deeply segregated. African American homeownership rates, which had shown some improvement, backslid with the 2008 recession. They still haven't recovered. Now because of COVID, evictions are expected to skyrocket.

Five years ago, the Obama administration beefed up regulations that granted federal funding to suburban areas that made an effort to open up. But President Trump recently reversed those rules, calling them overly bureaucratic. Without them, housing advocates say moving to the suburbs and building affordable units in them will become less likely. It was already pretty difficult.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRI ANDERSON: The city actually called a public hearing for our property, and about 250 angry residents showed up.

SULLIVAN: This was developer Terri Anderson four years ago as she tried to build an apartment complex that included some units for Section 8 voucher holders near the wealthy Dallas suburbs of McKinney and Frisco. She stood on mounds of dirt with white plumbing pipes sticking up. The project was already months behind schedule, and the community message board was full of comments asking whether there would be background checks for the new residents, whether felons can live near schools, asking why these new residents should get to live in their neighborhood at all. Why is it our responsibility to carry people who can't afford it, one wrote. They haven't earned it, another said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDERSON: Our superintendent has been threatened. Police officers blocked our entrance.

SULLIVAN: Back then, Frisco officials told me the city's opposition wasn't about race or poverty. It was about building permits.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR OPENING)

SULLIVAN: But out at the site of the development, I found Terri Anderson standing outside a rustic modern rental office in the middle of a fancy-looking apartment complex.

I barely even recognized it when we pulled up. You really did it (laughter).

ANDERSON: We did. We did. We're fortunate - 132 units, so...

SULLIVAN: Wow.

ANDERSON: The greatest thing about affordable housing is it doesn't look affordable.

SULLIVAN: Sitting down at a picnic table near the playground, she said it's still hard to believe how hard the residents fought her.

ANDERSON: They complained about overcrowding in schools. They complained about a decline in property value, and they also complained about the traffic along Westridge Boulevard.

SULLIVAN: Did any of that materialize?

ANDERSON: No, ma'am.

SULLIVAN: Anderson says there are two things that strike her now that it's all done. One is that the people who lined up for the low-income units were schoolteachers, daycare workers, a woman who bags groceries at a nearby store, even a couple administrative workers for the city that tried to keep the development out. And the second thing is that, except for one guy that still drives around the complex staring at people, everyone in the community seemed to just get over it. The message board died down. Everyone got on with their lives.

Would you do it again?

ANDERSON: Absolutely; it's prejudice, honestly, that is preventing the housing from being developed. As an African American woman, if I can actively engage in changing someone's life more positively, I have to.

SULLIVAN: Anderson's project was a few years too late for C'Artis Harris and her kids. Harris still wants good schools, parks, peace and quiet, but she's not sure how she's going to find them. Dallas' wealthy northern suburbs don't hold the promise they once did.

HARRIS: I think they just ruined it for me.

SULLIVAN: You think they ruined it for you.

HARRIS: I think they ruined it for me. I'd rather go somewhere else where I'm accepted, you know?

SULLIVAN: It was the middle of the day on a weekday, and Harris' kids played in the street. Somewhere, their school was holding Zoom classes, but Harris' kids haven't been participating. The Wi-Fi doesn't work very well, and the kids are struggling to keep up. Harris' 15-year-old son Zaedynn was down by the curb. He recently found an old guitar and was teaching himself to play. And for a few minutes on this hot September day in a decades-old government housing complex, all the kids stopped and listened.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You can listen to and read the original stories of the families we followed on NPR.org. You can also watch the full documentary film "Poverty, Politics And Profit" from our partners at PBS Frontline.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.