Episode 698: The Long Way Home : Planet Money Housing subsidies are often given out through a lottery. But why do we let random chance decide who gets help with the rent? We don't do that for food stamps or health care, so why housing?

Episode 698: The Long Way Home

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When I met Shanay Manson, she'd just gotten a really important phone call.

SHANAY MANSON: The temp agency that I work for called me and I start work on Thursday (laughter). Yeah, I start work on Thursday.


The job is in a warehouse setting up displays for Target and Staples and Wal-Mart. The pay is probably minimum wage, but Shanay points out minimum wage in Connecticut where she lives just went up to $9.60 an hour.

ROMER: Getting a job - that was one big thing Shanay needed to deal with. But there's another thing on her list that she still needs to take care of - finding a home. I ask Shanay to list all the places that she's lived.

MANSON: Oh, goodness, a lot, a lot. I had lived with my cousin. I had lived with friends.

KING: She was living at the Salvation Army and then she moved in with her sister. She did have a place of her own for a little while, but the heat didn't work and it was the winter, so she moved out.

MANSON: And from there back to living with friends and going from couch to couch to couch.

ROMER: One thing that makes finding a place hard for Shanay, it's not just her. She has two kids. I met Shanay at a rec center in Hartford. We were in the arts and crafts room. Every so often, the door would burst open and her 6-year-old daughter Envi would come running in to tell us something.


ENVI: Mother.

MANSON: (Laughter) Yes?

ENVI: This girl in her tunnel - her grabbed me on my arm like this. And I kick her off like this, and then I did this.

MANSON: She did?

ENVI: Yeah.

MANSON: Well, tell her don't touch you - that you got a mommy - that my mommy is in this building.

KING: She's such a mama bear. I love it.

ROMER: Most recently, Shanay and her kids were staying in the living room of her friend's one-bedroom apartment. It was obviously not a long-term solution.

MANSON: My kids, they like to go in the refrigerator when they want to. They like to make noise. They like to run around and stuff, and that just wasn't the place for them to do all that stuff.

ROMER: In the United States, if you are in Shanay's situation, if you can't afford a place to live, there is something that you can do. And Shanay, she just did it that morning.

MANSON: We make sure as soon as 8:30 hit, or a little bit past 8:30...

KING: Right.

MANSON: ...We go on our computer and do, do, do, do, do (ph).

KING: That do, do, do, do, do, do - that is Shanay going online and entering a lottery. It's a lottery for a Housing Choice voucher, which used to be called a Section 8 voucher.

ROMER: That voucher - you can take it to pretty much any landlord. It's a piece of paper that says the federal government will pay a big chunk of my rent.

KING: Right - if you win the lottery, which seems like a really weird way to do things to make housing assistance about luck.

ROMER: I mean, imagine if this is the way we did it for Medicaid or food stamps. OK, we're going to take everybody's name, put it in a hat and, George Walker (ph), you're our winner. You get food stamps this month. Everybody else - sorry.

KING: But when Shanay tries to get help for housing, that's basically the system she's working with.


KING: Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Noel King.

ROMER: And I'm Keith Romer. Today on the show - why do we do it this way? Why is there a lottery for housing?


KING: We wanted to know what the odds were of Shanay getting that housing voucher. So, Keith, you went to the place that's running the lottery that she entered. When she put all her information into the computer - do, do, do, do, do - it went to the West Hartford County Housing Authority.

ROMER: The West Hartford Housing Authority is this perfectly boring two-story gray building. Across the street, there's a hardware store. The biggest building around has this big sign that says WOW on the front, which stands for Work Out World. Inside the office, the woman I had come all this way to meet.

EILEEN KOZLOWSKI: My name is Eileen Kozlowski. I'm Section 8 manager for both West Hartford and the state of Connecticut.

ROMER: And that makes Eileen in charge of the lottery, and lottery really does feel like the right word for what's happening. Shanay's chances of winning - they're not great. When I got there, she told me 3,200 people had already applied for 400 slots.

KING: And that's 400 slots not for an actual housing voucher but for a spot on a waiting list to get a voucher. And a lot of people get stuck on those waiting lists for years and years and years.

ROMER: I asked Eileen why do they do it this way? Why a lottery? She said the federal government only gives them a certain amount of money, and so that limits the amount of vouchers they can actually give.

KING: Every housing authority in the country gets to decide how they want to give out the vouchers they have. In a lot of places, it's just first come, first serve. But Eileen says in West Hartford, that would be a mess. There are just too many people who want housing vouchers.

KOZLOWSKI: Say you were going to take 400 people, those 400-plus would be at your door when you opened in the morning. And then you just have, like, a swarm of people. And you're getting close to that 400 number and I-was-here-before-you kind of thing. So yeah, I think in all fairness to everybody, a lottery is really the only way to go.

KING: These vouchers are really valuable to people. It depends on what your income is, but they can be worth $600, $700, $800 a month. So if it was really first-come, first-served, you can imagine people camping out in the parking lot for a couple days trying to get one.

ROMER: I talked with Eileen for about an hour. At the end, I asked her to look one more time to see how many people had signed up.

Can we check the number one more time?

KOZLOWSKI: Applications - 3,786.

ROMER: So in the hour that we've talked, 500 people applied.

KOZLOWSKI: Correct - 555 people.

ROMER: She turned her swivel chair to her calculator - it's one of those old ones with the paper that comes out the top - and she figured out the odds.


KOZLOWSKI: Three thousand seven eighty-six.


KOZLOWSKI: 400 - oh, the other way around. It's only 9 percent.

KING: She means 1 in 9. It's actually about 11 percent. But people still have two more days to sign up. And for everyone that signs up, Shanay's odds get a little slimmer.

ROMER: So OK, it makes sense that there's a lottery instead of just a day where they open the doors and the first 400 people who are there get a spot on the waiting list. But there's still this bigger question of why we treat housing completely differently from something like food stamps - why, if you qualify for a housing subsidy, you don't just get one.

KING: And there is another housing subsidy out there. And we make sure there's plenty of that to go around. It's not for poor people, though. It's for middle-class and wealthy people - people who own their homes. It's called the mortgage interest deduction. If you buy a house, you have a mortgage, you get to deduct the interest on that mortgage from your taxes. It's basically like free money, and it can be thousands of dollars a year. That is a subsidy.

ROMER: To understand why we do it that way - why just about all middle-class homeowners get a subsidy, but only a fraction of the poorest people do, you have to go way back, like, 80 years back.

LAWRENCE VALE: Well, the first major national legislation is the Housing Act of 1937.

ROMER: That's Larry Vale. He's a planning historian at MIT. The Housing Act of 1937 - that's essentially the start of public housing. But Vale says the point then wasn't to give every poor person a place to live. Instead, he says, it was more like a jobs program.

VALE: It's coming right in the heart of the Great Depression. And many who supported it didn't support it as humanitarian aid to the poor. It was supported because it was a wonderful way of putting the construction industry back to work.

KING: The government keeps building public housing through the '40s and '50s. But it's not really intended for very, very poor people. These big housing projects like Cabrini-Green in Chicago or C.J. Peete in New Orleans - you had to apply to get into them, like, in the sense that you'd have to apply to get into college.

ROMER: They wanted to know - did you have a job? Were you married? Officially or not, being white tended to help your chances. You went in, and you sat in front of someone at the housing authority. And they decided if you deserved to live there.

VALE: Public housing was essentially a reward, often favoring people, after second world war, who'd been veterans. It was a reward for people who had a particular kind of family - two parents married to one another with a young child or two and not households that were mired in poverty.

ROMER: In the '60s, that starts to change. The civil rights movement, the war on poverty - housing project stopped being a reward and become something else entirely.

VALE: If we had a war on poverty, going on in the 1960s, these were going to be the battlefield hospitals.

KING: Yeah, but there were still only so many buildings and apartments available. There still wasn't enough to go around.

ROMER: In the '70s, the government moved a lot of public housing money into this new program, vouchers, which you could take to any landlord and use to help pay your rent. And it would've been easy enough just to provide enough vouchers for everyone who qualified.

KING: But that big change never came.

ROMER: We talk about the social safety net as if it's this one big thing. But it's not like Congress ever got together and said OK, we have this pool of money. We want to help poor people. What's the smartest way we could do it?

KING: Yeah, the safety net is basically just a mess of programs that all have their own twisted histories. Like, food stamps, for example, started out of the 1930s as a way to prop up prices for farmers.

ROMER: Government benefits are this collection of Band-Aids. Most Band-Aids everyone gets. But housing, we just don't make enough of the housing Band-Aids for everybody.

KING: Larry Vale says this doesn't make a lot of sense. Yet, it would cost money to give a housing voucher to everyone who needs one - to everyone qualifies, but not that much.

VALE: The cost of expanding housing vouchers or finding other ways of deeply subsidizing housing are not so astronomical. So this is a deliberate choice to stop short of trying to meet that need. It's certainly not something that would be nearly as expensive as universal health care or some of the other kinds of things that have made it more wholly into the public debate.

KING: The government says if we wanted to give a voucher to every poor person who would qualify for one, it would cost 40 billion extra dollars a year. This is not nothing. But it is less than we spend on food stamps.

ROMER: Also less than what we are giving to middle-class and wealthy people with the mortgage interest deduction.

KING: We've been calling around, and there doesn't seem to have ever been a big federal effort to just make housing vouchers guaranteed like food stamps.

ROMER: You can imagine the arguments on the other side. If we guarantee housing for everyone under a certain income level, it will create dependency. Why work hard to pay your rent if you have the option of quitting your job and knowing the government is just going to step in and pay your rent for you?

KING: So there's sort of a political stalemate around housing benefits.

ROMER: There are a limited number of vouchers. We can give them out according to what person is willing to camp out the longest or who's fastest at signing up online. Or we can make it explicitly about luck and use a lottery.

KING: For Shanay, the woman who we met at the beginning of the show, it's a lottery - or a lot of lotteries.

MANSON: I've signed up for Norwich. I've signed up for Hartford. I've signed up for Waterbury when it was open a few years ago. West Hartford, Bristol, Torrington, New Britain - I signed up for a lot of them.

ROMER: So in six years of applying to public housing waiting lists, Section 8 voucher waiting lists, how much housing support have you got?


ROMER: Shanay has tried to do everything you can think of. While she was staying in her friend's living room, she even tried to get help through a program specifically targeted to homeless people. They said she didn't qualify.

MANSON: They were like, well, we can't help you unless you're living in a shelter, which doesn't make sense. According to me, I'm homeless because I don't have my own roof over my head for me and my two kids.

ROMER: Last December, the day after Christmas, Shanay and her two kids finally did have to move into a homeless shelter.

KING: And then something good happened. She'd fallen as far as she could fall. She basically hit rock bottom. And at this point, another part of the social safety net caught her and her kids.

ROMER: By moving to the homeless shelter, Shanay qualified for a different program called Rapid Re-Housing. It's partly paid for by the federal government, partly by the state of Connecticut.

KING: And the way Rapid Re-Housing works is it'll pay her first month's rent and a security deposit and a little bit of help after that. So Shanay started apartment shopping. She looked around. She found one she really liked, but the landlord never got back to her.

ROMER: Her case manager finally pinned the landlord down. And a little over a week ago, Shanay signed a lease on a new apartment, a little one bedroom in Hartford.

What's the first thing you're going to do in your new apartment?

MANSON: Oh, goodness, I'm going to sleep (laughter). I'm going to sleep, and then I'm going to cook. And I'm going to go in the refrigerator at 12 o'clock in the morning just because I can. I'm going to take a shower whenever I want to. I'm going to do it all. I'm going to just be free. I'm going to be free. I'm going to be so excited. I'm not going to know what do. I can't wait. I'm so excited (laughter).

KING: We looked up some statistics. According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, among very low income people, only about 1 in 4 actually get any kind of housing assistance. Three in 4 get nothing.

ROMER: Starting next month, Shanay and her kids will in the group getting help, but only for now. Rapid Re-Rousing - the longest they can help Shanay for is a year. And her job, remember, it's just temporary.

KING: Yeah, the thing that would really give her some stability here is to win the lottery and get a Housing Choice voucher. That would give her long-term help until she's got enough money to just pay the rent herself.

ROMER: A couple of days ago, I called Eileen Kozlowski at the West Hartford Housing Authority. I wanted to see how many people ended up in the lottery.

KOZLOWSKI: Final accepted applications was 12,321.

ROMER: How many slots are becoming available?

KOZLOWSKI: Four hundred.

ROMER: So what are the - what are the chances for somebody who has signed up?

KOZLOWSKI: Oh, I don't know. What's it, like...


KOZLOWSKI: Yeah, 400 divided by 12,321.


KOZLOWSKI: Yeah, 3 percent.

ROMER: In about a month, Shanay will find out whether or not she is part of that 3 percent.


ROMER: We'd love to hear what you think. You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org.

KING: You can tweet to us @planetmoney. I'm @noeleking.

Keith, are you on Twitter?

ROMER: I am. I'm @RealKeithRomer. Thanks today to Nancy Pappas at the Community Renewal Team in Connecticut.

KING: Our episode today was produced by Nick Fountain.

ROMER: And if you're looking for another show to listen to, you can try Fresh Air. That's the one with Terry Gross, the world's greatest interviewer. She's got Jennifer Lawrence discussing her social anxiety and genius Ta-Nehisi Coates - that's official. He's a genius - talking about genius things. You can find Fresh Air at npr.org/podcasts and on the NPR One app.

KING: I'm Noel King.

ROMER: And I'm Keith Romer.

KING: Thanks for listening.


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