Aiming to help Chester, Philly residents move to better opportunity, housing program starts off slowly

     Cortina Faust used housing choice voucher money to move from Coatesville to Downingtown, where she found safer neighborhoods and better schools. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Cortina Faust used housing choice voucher money to move from Coatesville to Downingtown, where she found safer neighborhoods and better schools. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    After 10 years on a waiting list, Cortina Faust landed a federal housing choice voucher, formerly known as a Section 8 voucher, and seized on the opportunity to move to a better area.

    Cortina Faust had been trying to find a way to move out of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, for years.

    The mother of four boys, Faust speaks softly and with a big smile. She had concerns for her sons’ prospects if they stayed in Coatesville. The Chester County city has a history of gang-related violence, and its schools consistently appear on the state’s list of lowest performers.

    “The last straw was when my son was walking to school and got beat by like five kids. [He] ended up in a neck brace with a broken ankle,” she said.

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    Moving toward opportunity

    After 10 years on a waiting list, Faust landed a federal housing choice voucher, formerly known as a Section 8 voucher, and seized on the opportunity.

    “I was one of those eager persons,” she said, calling the Housing Authority of Chester County about leads for places in other parts of the county. “Finally, I just got on the bus and started walking.”

    The vouchers, known as HCVs, are supposed to provide freedom for program participants. Yet many end up living in areas of concentrated poverty and low economic opportunity, with lower-rated schools and fewer job opportunities. Coatesville is home to more than 40 percent of Chester County’s HCV recipients, as well as a  Veterans Affairs Hospital.

    In order to break out of this pattern, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has worked with housing authorities around the country to start “mobility” programs, which provide the voucher holders with counseling about moving. In some cases, the programs build housing or work with landlords to get people in areas with more economic opportunities.

    When Faust left Coatesville in 2003, there was no such local program. After a lot of legwork, she found a place in Downingtown, about a 15-minute drive from Coatesville — but home to far fewer people living in poverty.

    Faust was resourceful, but she was also lucky. The first landlord she found to take her voucher in Downingtown was also her son’s football coach.

    In order to take luck out of the equation, housing authorities sometimes turn to mobility programs to encourage more people such as Faust to move closer to better opportunities.

    County collaboration — and combustion

    Poverty clusters in pockets in the densely settled Philadelphia suburbs, often in towns with older homes and where rental housing is the least competitive.

    By concentrating people living in poverty, these areas become “over-impacted.” Taxes are higher than surrounding areas, even though residents have less to tax, while services, schools and job opportunities tend to be worse. Some of these areas include Norristown, Coatesville, and much of Southwest Delaware County.

    To try to break up these nodes, advocacy groups First Suburbs and Building One Pennsylvania lobbied for a regional housing mobility program.

    In 2012, HUD granted the Philadelphia Housing Authority half a million dollars to try a pilot, in conjunction with housing authorities in Delaware, Chester and Montgomery counties. After the parties signed a memorandum of understanding committing to the program in 2013, internecine conflict threatened to end it.

    “PHA are the folks who pulled the plug,” said Joel Johnson, executive director of the Montgomery County Housing Authority. He and the director of the Delaware County Housing Authority claim that PHA could not agree on the terms.

    Kelvin Jeremiah, executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, paints a different picture.

    “To the extent that [other housing authorities] were not interested in participating, they were raising issues that prevented them from participating,” he said.

    Fights between advocates and local housing authorities, as well as turnover in HUD leadership, all may have diluted the program’s scope. When the dust settled, Chester and Philadelphia counties were the only two to participate in the program.

    “Regardless of who did the shutting, the end result did shut out Norristown,” said Marlon Millner, a member of the Norristown council and a housing advocate. About a third of Montgomery County’s housing choice vouchers are used in Norristown, and activists from the town were among those pushing for the program in the first place.

    “I was a part of the leadership that always felt like our region should get funding to do this kind of work,” said Millner. “I’m pissed.”

    A mobility pilot for Chester and Philadelphia

    In 2014, Chester and Philadelphia started using that $500,000, subcontracting with a group called Quadel. Quadel provided counseling to new and existing voucher holders, as well as support such as transportation and referrals to available properties. In both places, a “successful” move meant leaving an area with greater than a 20 percent poverty rate for an area with a less than 20 percent poverty rate.

    Chester is rural and has the highest per-capita income of any county in the state, while poverty rates can top 80 percent in some ZIP codes in Philly. That made the challenges to implementing this program vastly different in the two places.

    The biggest barrier to moving in Chester County, according to Dale Gravett, executive director of the Housing Authority of Chester County, is price. More than 40 percent of those holding housing vouchers live in Coatesville.

    “It’s such a barrier to moving to, in fact, most of the ZIP codes in the county,” he said. “It’s a problem not just for low income individuals and families. It’s a problem for a lot of folks.”

    The voucher amount is set by the federal government based on a region-wide average, and voucher holders are barred from spending more than 30 percent of their own income on housing.

    In Philadelphia, stigma was a greater barrier than cost, according to Jeremiah. As of November, 69 people had moved to areas of higher opportunity either in their county of origin or in another county.

    “It was just like a handful that moved here in Chester County,” said Gravett, who puts the number at under five. While the results may have been modest, his organization has assimilated the lessons of the pilot. It now employs a full-time housing counselor who works with landlords to accept HCVs, and counsels tenants about moving to areas of higher opportunity.

    The Philadelphia Housing Authority has also continued the program beyond the pilot, counseling by its own estimates hundreds of people, although most do not end up moving somewhere with less than 20 percent of residents living in poverty.

    In both places, a much larger number of  voucher holders are still living in places where poverty is higher than the surrounding neighborhoods.

    Addressing inadvertent segregation

    When it comes to thinking about who gets opportunities, race is the elephant in the room, said Millner.

    “It’s no accident that Norristown has the largest percentage and number of African-Americans in Montgomery County and, at the same time, has the largest number of HCVs,” he said. “It’s not coincidental.”

    Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled disproportionately subsidizing housing in a way that ends up segregating people by race is unacceptable, even if there were no intent to segregate.

    This means housing authorities must be proactive in essentially integrating communities of housing choice voucher users. For the first time, HUD is requiring these authorities to keep data on who their users are and where they live, to flush out these patterns.

    Housing mobility programs, which have moved hundreds of people in the greater Chicago and Baltimore areas, are seen as key tool to solving that larger problem.

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