Missed Opportunity

On Sunday, the Washington Post published a front-page, above-the-fold story on one woman’s quest to find a home to rent for herself, her daughter and granddaughter using a Section 8 voucher.

Post writer Stephanie McCrummen traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina to report the story and was fortunate at the housing authority there to meet Liza Jackson, who was a willing participant and interesting subject for the story.

The path taken by Ms. Jackson is one that housing advocates view as a principle attribute of the program: A low wage worker in a high cost area (one has to earn $68,000 a year to afford to rent a modest two bedroom home in Honolulu, where Ms. Jackson used to live) was one of the fortunate few to get a housing voucher she could use as a springboard to a better life. She was able to save enough money to move herself and her family to an area of the country with a better supply of housing that could be afforded with her voucher.

But a perusal of the comments in the online version of the story indicates that many readers did not view it this way. They read into the details about Ms. Jackson and her family- her leopard-print dress, her Lil’ Wayne cell phone ringtone, her daughter’s slang- a very different subtext, one that had more to do with prejudice than with facts.

Whether one believes Ms. Jackson and her family are, with her voucher, helping to preserve property values in whatever neighborhood she chooses, or that she will do further damage to a neighborhood rocked by the foreclosure and financial crises, depends entirely on the experience or bias one brings to the story. With its emphasis on colorful details and total lack of explanation of the Section 8 voucher program, its purpose, and its true impact on communities, the article is a veritable blank slate onto which one can project one’s own point of view.

Surely, this can happen with any article. A human interest story, without the benefit of background information, runs the risk of veering from reporting into caricature. But in an effort to publish an attention-grabbing piece, the Post missed an opportunity to educate its readers about a highly successful low income housing program.

Here are the facts: The voucher program serves more than 2 million households, almost half of whom are elderly or disabled. Voucher households pay rent, about 30% of their incomes. The average voucher household rent payment is around $290 a month. The voucher program is deeply targeted, meaning that a majority of its resources must help extremely low income households. Seventy-five percent of all new voucher holders must have extremely low incomes, meaning their household income is at or below 30% of the area median. While this is one of the few programs designed to meet the housing needs of our nation’s lowest income households, because it is not an entitlement, it only serves 25% of those who need it.

Today, the Post published letters to the editor in response to the article, including a passage from one written by NLIHC President & CEO Sheila Crowley. Many are in agreement that the true story of housing programs in this country must be told, and told well.

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