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Inequitable distribution of housing vouchers in Montgomery County

November 16, 2010

The debate about how to best house the less fortunate has many facets and many layers. Below is my response posted earlier today to an opinion piece at The Mercury, written by Elizabeth G. Hersh, Executive Director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. My comments were posted under the name “Number5.”

“This is a long-winded version of brussell’s last paragraph!

The whole point of the First Suburbs project is to bring attention to the fiscal & underlying policy inequities among various municipalities that exist side-by-side or within close proximity to each other in a region. While I agree with Ms. Hersh in many respects, I fear that her defense of the voucher program loses sight of this very basic premise.

There are many good purposes served by the Housing Choice Voucher Program. I am a staunch supporter of its compassionate intent and believe we must be vigilant against negative stereotyping of individuals. But, like many other public programs & policies, if the voucher program is implemented inequitably, much of its good can be undone or result in unintended consequences to communities.

If I am reading Ms. Hersh’s numbers correctly, 4% of all of Montgomery County’s rental units have tenants who are voucher holders, and 12-15% of all of Pottstown’s and Norristown’s rental units have tenants who are voucher holders. Therefore, Pottstown and Norristown have 3-4 times the CONCENTRATION of voucher holders than the county as a whole. The county’s low-income residents ARE concentrated in the county’s urban areas. That is not a “negative stereotype.” That is reality, and it is unacceptable public policy. Not only is it not good for a community’s fiscal health, it is not good for the low-income people themselves, particularly the children, who benefit from being educated among a socio-economic diversity of peers. In what ways do voucher holders truly have a CHOICE to live in a suburban community?

I would also be curious to know how the “nearly half” of elderly/disabled voucher holders are distributed geographically throughout the county. Are they in the urban and suburban areas in roughly equal concentrations?

The phrase, “yes, making sure that all communities bear an equal responsibility for helping our less fortunate neighbors” is added in the last paragraph almost as an afterthought, when that is actually one of the main premises of the First Suburbs project. I have nothing but respect for Ms. Hersh and other affordable housing advocates and providers for their commitment and passion, but summary statistics can be misleading. Critical analysis will help us find more equitable AND compassionate solutions.

Sue Repko
Positively!Pottstown ”

(First Suburbs link added here.)

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2 Comments
  1. MB Lydon permalink
    November 17, 2010 8:27 am

    Sue, thank you for your thoughtful reply to Ms. Hersh. I too understand the need for safe, affordable housing for everyone, and only question how the decisions get made as to its location. It seems like some towns are penalized for being convenient for transportation and services, and others have found ways to build invisible walls to providing these same needs and opening their boundaries to all types of residents. I couldn’t have figured out the percentages and stats thrown around in all areas of this discussion if my life depended on it! My request is simply that we have an open discussion of how to fairly balance the numbers in terms of the types of housing we offer in any given community.

    Thanks!
    MB

    • November 17, 2010 11:31 am

      Thanks for writing in, MB. I, too, hope there can be an open discussion. It requires looking at the systemic or institutional reasons why some communities have more or less of any given type of housing. But it’s hard to challenge all the embedded assumptions precisely because they have been in play for a long time and it’s hard to imagine things being otherwise, let alone what steps would be needed to implement change.

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