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For people who are a step away from homelessness, getting a housing voucher can feel like a way to a better life, but it isn't a guarantee. NPR and the PBS show "Frontline" have been examining the billions that taxpayers spend to house the poor. Today, Section 8 housing vouchers - the program that helps people pay rent. But only 1 in 4 people who need help, get any.
NPR's Laura Sullivan introduces us to two women - one who just got a voucher and another who doesn't want low-income housing in her neighborhood. Together they illustrate a central question for housing policy - where should poor people live?
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Early every morning, Farryn Giles gets her 6-year-old son up for school in a rundown apartment complex in Dallas.
FARRYN GILES: What time is it?
ISAIAH: Seven, two, one.
SULLIVAN: Giles is 26.
GILES: So I want you to put your shoes on, OK?
SULLIVAN: And at the moment, she's staying with her ex-husband. Before she was here, she was sleeping on and off in her car.
GILES: We got to walk kind of fast, too, because if we don't, then you're not going to get to school in time for breakfast.
SULLIVAN: Giles recently hit what to her might as well have been the jackpot. She was awarded a Section 8 housing Choice Voucher. It will pay the difference between her rent and what she can afford to pay, but there's a catch. She has to find a landlord willing to take it. She has 90 days. And in hot rental markets like Dallas, that's going to be hard. Giles says she's determined.
GILES: It took me six years to get my voucher, but I got it. You can best believe I'm going to utilize it.
SULLIVAN: More than 2 million families now use vouchers to keep from becoming homeless, but Congress also had bigger plans for the $18 billion program. The voucher was designed to be a ticket out of poverty because families can use it wherever they want. They can move to places with jobs, good schools and low crime. And that's what Giles wants, too.
She recently got a new job doing online customer service work. It's a big break for her. It pays $11.50 an hour, but it's way up north in one of Dallas' well-off suburbs. It'll take an hour and a half by bus to get there. She's hoping the voucher will help her and her son find a place nearby.
GILES: I'm a 26-year-old divorcee with a six-year-old son, like, hello? Goals, ambition - I don't spend my money in those places. I'm a homebody. You saw my kitchen? I like to cook. I'm at home making caramel from scratch at 2 o'clock in the morning. That's what I was doing at 2. I'm cooking. For me, this is a huge opportunity to make what I wanted to make out of my life.
SULLIVAN: A few months later, I checked in on Giles, and things weren't going so well.
GILES: I'm in the market for a new apartment. Are you guys accepting the Section 8 Vouchers right now?
SULLIVAN: She had made hundreds of phone calls to the northern suburbs and elsewhere.
GILES: I've been to the Oak Cliff. I've been to South Dallas. I've been to Pleasant Grove. I've been way down south. Nobody wants my voucher.
SULLIVAN: Giles is not alone. In Dallas, around 60 percent of people who get new vouchers are unable to use them. It's worse in Dallas, but the challenge is similar in many cities where rents are high.
Giles was having even more trouble moving north, and I wanted to find out why. I heard about a developer who was trying to build an apartment complex with room for some voucher holders near the well-off enclaves of McKinny and Frisco.
TERRI ANDERSON: Hello, how are you?
SULLIVAN: Hi, I'm a Laura.
Developer Terri Anderson steps out of a construction trailer on a site just on the border of the two cities. She says ever since people found out she planned to accept some lower-income residents, she's had nothing but problems.
ANDERSON: The city actually called a public hearing for our property and about 250 angry residents showed up. Our superintendent has been threatened, issued a criminal trespass warning. Police officers blocked our entrance.
SULLIVAN: And she has a theory why that is.
ANDERSON: It is a concerted effort to shut down development of a property they do not want in their neighborhood.
SULLIVAN: Frisco City officials say they support affordable housing and her project and say Anderson has not followed the city's building requirements. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has opened an investigation into whether Frisco and McKinney are violating the Federal Fair Housing Law.
I went to talk with one of the neighbors who opposes the development. Nicole Humphrey lives a few miles down the road. As we stood outside her newly built house at twilight, she said she, like other neighbors, is concerned about traffic and school overcrowding. But she also had other reasons.
NICOLE HUMPHREY: This neighborhood - most of us, I feel like, are stay-at-home moms with young kids. The lifestyle I feel like that goes with Section 8 is usually working single moms or people who are struggling to keep their heads above water. And it's not - I feel so bad saying that. It's just not people who are the same class as us.
SULLIVAN: Some people would say, you know, look, their kids are not going to have the opportunities that your kids are going to have in this neighborhood.
SULLIVAN: Can they share in that?
HUMPHREY: The problem with that is I hear a lot of that unfair of, oh, we haven't been given this or that, or we haven't been afforded things that you might have been afforded. I don't look at multimillionaires and think, why don't I have a yacht? Why don't I have a private jet? It's a mindset, I feel like.
SULLIVAN: As we walk past the tidy rows of houses, Humphrey said the issue for her is not about race. Her neighborhood is actually pretty diverse, but she said she worries the voucher holders won't fit in. She paused for a moment on the corner and said she doesn't think the voucher holders will understand her.
HUMPHREY: People see that I'm upper-middle class and that I'm a woman who stays at home who is kept by her husband, and instantly my opinion doesn't matter. They look at me, and they think, oh, she has never experienced a problem that we're having.
SULLIVAN: Wait, you think that people are going to come to the apartment complex and stereotype you?
HUMPHREY: Oh, definitely. I mean, I've been told that I am a racist or a bigot or whatever just because I am more on board with living with people who are in the same socioeconomic status that we are.
SULLIVAN: Do you think that you maybe are stereotyping the folks...
HUMPHREY: Oh, I totally am. It works both ways.
SULLIVAN: So it makes me wonder if there's a lot more fear and sort of...
HUMPHREY: Oh, I think it's totally fear and stigma. It's fear of the - I think probably fear of the unknown.
SULLIVAN: I'm trying to figure out what the solution is here.
HUMPHREY: I don't have a solution, and I don't know that we will ever come to that solution as a culture in America in general. There is always going to be somebody with less because the fair world doesn't exist, and where does that line lie?
SULLIVAN: Farryn Giles knows exactly where the line lies. It lies between north and south Dallas. And across the country, the line is just a start. A study last fall found only 13 percent of female voucher holders with children were able to use them in neighborhoods with opportunity. Sitting on a bench on a 15-minute break outside her customer service job, Giles says she has an idea of how people up north see her.
GILES: I think that they think that we're lazy and worthless and getting over. Even though we're financially less capable, we still love our children the same.
SULLIVAN: After three months of trying, Giles was unable to get anyone to take her voucher, and she turned it back in.
GILES: Section 8 is not any type of simplification for our lives. It's not easier. I mean, society hasn't really grown the way people think that it has. And that's how I feel about that. Can't all have a happy ending, I suppose.
SULLIVAN: When I last checked in with Giles, she and her son had moved into a public housing complex in Dallas. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF PORCAS BORBOLETAS SONG, "ANINHA")
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