Thursday, December 22, 2011

Section 8

From depression to recession, the Section 8 housing program is a loophole filled world. For those gentle readers out there unfamiliar with it, Section 8 housing is more formally known as “Section 8 of the United States Housing Act of 1937.” But fear not friends! I don’t plan on hurling legal lingo at you. Instead, I’d like to tell you a story of three different people who are trying to get by in this economic recession using loopholes in an old, often-amended program. 

Sadly, I’ll have to walk those of you unfamiliar with it through what exactly Section 8 is and how it functions. Put very simply, Section 8 is a federal subsidy program for low-income individuals. Even more simply: they help you pay your rent and utility bills. The Section 8 program is managed on a town-by-town basis; so for example, Boston has two organizations to deal with Section 8 applicants: the Boston Housing Authority and the Metropolitan Partnership Housing Authority.


Applying is pretty straightforward: you stop by one of the offices and allow these organizations to check out whether you have a criminal record, what your income is and what your general living situation is, like if you have children. That latter part is especially interesting because as recently as a year ago, the rules dictated that a single mother must be provided with a 2-bedroom apartment, the theory being that a room was necessary for the mother and the kid. The rules also told you that a child can share the bedroom with mom until they were 2½-3 years old. But boy, oh boy, have the rules changed: Section 8 now says that 1-bedroom apartments are decent enough, and that a child up to 12-years-old can share a bedroom with mom.

Anyhow, with all of us on the same page, I’d like to share with you those three stories of people getting through this nasty recession. To keep these people – and their landlords – from getting into trouble, I’ve given them pseudonyms. The first story features a woman I’ll call Grandma. She’s getting up there in years, so that’s reason for it.

Grandma came over from the Dominican Republic a while back. She rents a 1 bedroom apartment priced at $900 per month, but she only has to pay a tenth of that.

“I qualify because of my age and how much I earn,” her grand-nephew tells me. He acts as interpreter because Grandma’s English is a little poor. “She doesn’t pay that much rent,” he adds, “the city covers it.”

Now, as pleasant as it seems that Section 8 seems to be working, there’s the flipside to the coin: Grandma owns property back in the Dominican Republic. In fact, she earns an income by renting out that property that the Section 8 authorities don’t know about; it’s completely under the table. As an aside, too: Section 8 has certain rules about what applicants can and can’t do, one being that an applicant can’t live outside the unit being subsidized for a certain period of time. Meanwhile, Grandma likes to take a month or two to visit and live with family back in the Dominican Republic.

Now readers, it seems a fair time to ask whether you think this is a fair deal. Personally, I’ve been charmed by Grandma’s sunny disposition. When I stop by to fix a leak, she’ll treat me to a song whose lyrics I can’t understand. I watch Grandma’s cockatiel dance to the song and I can’t help but smile.



When asking what Grandma thinks of her sneaky dealings with Section 8, she told me, “I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The money is there and they help me.”

Let’s call the next tenant Number 42, or “no. 42” for short – think apartment number. Another immigrant story, no. 42 and her husband are originally from Cameroon. While her husband works full-time, she works part-time and qualifies for Section 8, which pays roughly $1,000 out of $1,250 for her 2 bedroom apartment. One of no. 42’s qualifications is that she applied as a single mother, though anyone who knows her husband knows that’s a huge stretch of the imagination. This way, no. 42 receives lots of help because of her son, and because they don’t count her husband’s considerable income.

As a tertiary source of income, no. 42 also cuts hair under the table. “I want to open a salon one day,” she told me, “I already have the chairs and equipment stored, I just need to find a place to open up.”

So readers, one wonders if no. 42 and her husband working the system are wrong. I think I’ll leave it up to you to decide because I think they’re good people. They tie their garbage before throwing it into the dumpster, so it can’t accidentally spill across the parking lot. They pick up bits of trash in the hallway that I’ve ignored. And they make me feel good when I help them install a bathroom shelf or some such, scolding their son to stop watching TV and be as hard-working as me.

Oh, gentle readers. If you’ve made it this far, I’d like to thank you. I wondered whether you’d enjoy my little stories. The final tenant I’ve got lined up for you to hear about isn’t actually on Section 8. I’ll call her Mom, because that’s what she is. And doesn’t it seem fitting to finish a story about those who hoodwink the government with someone who doesn’t want to?


Mom comes from Senegal and rents a 2 bedroom apartment for around $1,100 a month. She works in the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center labs doing blood work, and has a son who’s around 19 years old.

“You know, I like it here,” Mom tells me when I see her, “but one day I’ll go back to Senegal.”

When I ask Mom what she’s planning, she tells me, “I am sending money back to family. But I have to watch out, because you know, my family, it is big. So sometimes [the money’s] not all there, you know.”

I am using money from here to build a house in Senegal,” she continues, “because there are a lot of British there and they pay a lot for rent.”

When I prod Mom to see if she has any other plans, she goes on to describe her dream of starting up a wig-store. She tells me how hair extensions and wigs and similar items are popular where she’s from, at least with the women her age. And she knows someone who knows someone who buys from China, and they make cheap hair products.

“I can make lots of money,” Mom almost whispers to me, careful not to let any prying ears in on her get-rich-quick scheme.

And there you have it, readers. Three different examples of three different immigrants making it through the recession that’s hitting America. What do you make of them, I wonder. Examples of tenacious Americanism, working the system to get ahead, or felonious thieves, skulking about and siphoning money from the taxpayers. Personally, I couldn’t ever imagine Grandma skulking.

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