The limits of 8  

The limits

of 8

Section 8 vouchers were designed to give low-income people choice in housing. A Post-Gazette data analysis shows their choices are mainly in low-income areas.

Cover illustration by Dan Marsula

August 2, 2017

Reporting Kate Giammarise

Data Liz Navratil


When she had to leave her East Liberty apartment last year, Linda Robinson was stressed and upset. She was having difficulty finding a place to live.

She had a Housing Choice Voucher — commonly referred to as a “Section 8” voucher — which helps low-income individuals find an apartment on the private rental market by paying part of their rent every month.


Pittsburgh data decoded

Still, she searched for months.

"One time, I spent $30 on stamps, applying for places. They put you on the waiting list. You can't get anything immediately," she recalled.

In the city of Pittsburgh, there are high numbers of voucher holders in East Liberty, Carrick, Sheraden/Esplen, Knoxville and Crawford-Roberts and the Middle Hill, an analysis of data from three local housing authorities by the Post-Gazette found.

The Allegheny County suburbs of Wilkinsburg, McKeesport, McKees Rocks, Penn Hills, Duquesne, Clairton and Swissvale have the highest number of voucher holders, the same analysis — using data from the Allegheny County Housing Authority and McKeesport Housing Authority — found.

Linda Robinson sits for a photo in her new apartment on July 26, 2017 in Wilkinsburg. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Linda Robinson waters her plants on the balcony for a photo in her new apartment in Wilkinsburg. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Within the city, there are only a handful or no voucher-holders in neighborhoods like Regent Square, Point Breeze and Squirrel Hill North, according to data provided by the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.

Almost no residents with vouchers live in suburbs such as Aspinwall, Scott Township, or Upper St. Clair.

Such a distribution reflects an unfortunate reality that Ms. Robinson ran into, experts say. Landlords willing to accept Section 8 vouchers can often be concentrated in areas with poor performing public schools, and limited access to jobs and amenities.

For voucher-holders, “[t]his means that while in theory, a voucher grants you access to housing anywhere in the private market, they are actually quite limited in their choices of where they can live,” said Anita Zuberi, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Duquesne University who has studied the program.

“Also, research suggests that the voucher program in its current form is not meeting one of the original intentions of the program, which was to reverse the concentration of lower income housing that was created by large scale public housing developments. No area is as high in concentration of poverty as areas with large scale public housing developments, but voucher holders are by no means able to relocate to what are considered ‘high opportunity neighborhoods’ – where the poverty is low, the public schools system is good, and the services and amenities are thriving,” she said.

Ms. Robinson, who had lived in East Liberty for eight years, said she was hoping to continue to live there, or another East End neighborhood.

"I really like Squirrel Hill, because that's where I was getting physical therapy," she said.

"Everything is convenient — Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, East Liberty were the areas I was targeting, and nothing. Homewood was available, and Wilkinsburg. Most of the high-crime areas," she said.

Because the program depends on lots of participation from landlords, Pittsburgh’s Housing Authority does try to reach out to landlords to encourage participation in the program, and says it has taken steps to make things easier through a “preferred” landlords program, and has created a landlord advisory council to get input to improve the program, said Chief Operations Officer David Weber.

The authority is also working on developing a new payment system that could allow renters to use their vouchers in more areas of Pittsburgh they could be priced out of currently. The plan would essentially create “submarkets” within the city — which would allow the program to pay a higher rent for an apartment in say, Squirrel Hill or Shadyside — rather than the same city-wide payment standard for fair market rent used now.

“But at the same time, I think we have to be cautious about the cost,” Mr. Weber noted, because more costly rentals could ultimately mean fewer people could participate in the program.

The plan would still need to be approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the authority is still gathering rental market data, Mr. Weber said.

Will Fischer, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said such a change wouldn’t necessarily raise program costs, because rents could be lowered in other neighborhoods.

"It's a way to give [voucher holders] broader choices about where they live," he said. He also said housing authorities can assist in expanding the geographic scope of the program by making sure they are giving people information about apartments that are in a whole range of neighborhoods.

2011 voucher units

2016 voucher units

Neighborhood vouchers +/-

Housing Authority data was based on Census tract information, and in some cases it was not possible to distinguish between neighborhoods that fall within the same Census tract. For that reason, in both years, the following neighborhoods have been combined: Chartiers City, Fairywood and Windgap; Elliott and the West End; Sheraden and Esplen; Allegheny Center and Allegheny West; Arlington and Arlington Heights. In 2016 data, Glen Hazel and Hazelwood were combined into one unit and Hazelwood and Hays were combined into a separate unit; there may be some overlap. In 2011, Glen Hazel, Hazelwood and Hays were combined.

"Just make sure people are hearing about those other opportunities, and how the quality of schools varies, and the impact that moving to a different place can have," he said.

John and Peter Rooke, brothers who run North Side-based Oakglade Realty that rents some of its 184 units to voucher-holders, say they understand some landlords might be reluctant to participate in the program due to concerns about the required annual quality inspection or misperceptions about who the program services.

“We see Section 8 as being an asset to the community,” said Peter Rooke.

The program provides a level of economic security for both tenant and landlord, said John.

“Most of the people on Section 8 are in more precarious employment positions. When their employment gets cut, or if there is an issue where they had to quit the job... Section 8 is a safety net that keeps them from the street. And it’s a safety net that keeps us from having to pursue legal options to get rent,” until the person gets back on their feet, he said.

“Our desire is to create quality, affordable housing as the foundation to a just and diverse community,” said John.

Kim Longwell, director of the Housing Choice Voucher at the Allegheny County Housing Authority, said her agency distributes a list of potential available housing at a briefing when people get a voucher, as well as updating their website with information about available apartments. She said they also refer apartment-seekers to the web site, a non-profit website with up-to-date listings.

"Unfortunately, we don't have the staff to counsel them or take them around [to apartment-hunt]," she said.

As for Ms. Robinson, while she was eventually able to find housing in a Wilkinsburg apartment, the process was difficult, she said, from apartments she didn’t consider liveable to, being put on waiting lists for other apartments, to an overall demeaning process for voucher-holders.

"When you need help, how people treat you, it just doesn't feel good. It doesn't feel good at all."



East Liberty in transition

Marlene Copeland, at right, holds her sign. She lived in Penn Plaza Plaza for 12 years. Protesters gather along S. Negley Ave. in East Liberty, as the units are being leveled with excavators. Protesters want the property to go to the City for affordable housing. Thursday, June 22, 2017. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

East Liberty trying to make up for lost Section 8 in wake of Penn Plaza and East Liberty Garden closures.

Reporting Diana Nelson Jones

Data Liz Navratil


At a raucous community meeting at East Liberty Presbyterian Church last year, the first phase of relocations was in full swing at the Penn Plaza apartments. City Councilman Ricky Burgess said “the Penn Plaza crisis has spilled over into everybody’s psyche.”

Relocating is an exhausting routine for many low-income renters, but Penn Plaza’s scale made ripples in the greater public’s awareness of the shortage of decent housing for low-income people. Its residents were not just displaced but dispersed, and East Liberty lost 200 units of affordable housing in one year.

Created with Highstock 5.0.12Voucher unitsMovement within neighborhoodsSection 8 voucher units that moved within a neighborhood1616101010107744East LibertyHazelwoodSheradenCarrickKnoxville05101520
Created with Highstock 5.0.12Voucher unitsMovement between neighborhoodsSection 8 voucher units that have moved between neighborhoods111155554444Knoxvilleto CarrickAllentownto KnoxvilleEast Libertyto BloomfieldElliottto Crafton HeightsGarfieldto East Liberty051015

Those Penn Plaza residents with Section 8 vouchers could be tracked, and of roughly 60 households with vouchers, 40 went looking for a Section 8-approved landlord. Ten found a landlord in East Liberty.

Another 20 dispersed around the East End, 21 more broadly. Nineteen did not use their vouchers for reasons that included being over income, having expired vouchers or wanting off assistance.

At the same time, but more gradually, 127 units in East Liberty Gardens were emptied out for new construction.

Samantha Gilcrese lucked out after several dashed hopes looking for a place with a voucher.

“I had a couple things fall through,” she said. “One place I was supposed to move into sold because he got an offer. Another landlord didn’t work out.”

She found a place in one of eight townhouses East Liberty Development Inc. has been renovating for voucher holders on Enright Court and Hays and Selma streets.

With its high-end building boom and the closure of Penn Plaza, East Liberty has become the perceived epicenter of the affordable housing crisis in Pittsburgh. It is a neighborhood in economic transition, which its Section 8 numbers confirm. It still has more voucher units than any other neighborhood with 396 but it has 114 fewer than it did in 2011.

Voucher movement within city neighborhoods

Neighborhood From Neighborhood To Total
Allegheny Center Allegheny Center 1
Allegheny Center Beechview 1
Allegheny Center Crawford-Roberts 1
Allegheny Center Perry North 1
Allegheny West East Allegheny 1
Allentown Allentown 2
Allentown Beechview 1
Allentown Carrick 2
Allentown Elliott 1
Allentown Knoxville 5
Arlington Bedford Dwellings 1
Arlington Beltzhoover 1
Arlington Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar 1
Bedford Dwellings Carrick 1
Bedford Dwellings Crafton Heights 1
Beechview Beechview 2
Beechview Brookline 1
Beechview Carrick 2
Beechview Elliott 1
Beltzhoover Brookline 1
Beltzhoover Carrick 2
Beltzhoover Hazelwood 2
Beltzhoover Knoxville 1
Beltzhoover Mt Washington 1
Beltzhoover South Side Slopes 1
Bloomfield Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar 1
Bluff Sheraden 2
Bluff West Oakland 1
Brighton Heights Brighton Heights 2
Brighton Heights Knoxville 1
Brighton Heights Marshall-Shadeland 1
Brighton Heights Perry South 2
Brookline Allentown 1
Brookline Beechview 1
California-Kirkbride Esplen 1
Carrick Banksville 1
Carrick Beechview 1
Carrick Carrick 7
Carrick Crafton Heights 1
Carrick Elliott 1
Carrick Hazelwood 1
Carrick Knoxville 2
Carrick Mt Washington 1
Carrick Overbrook 1
Carrick South Side Flats 1
Carrick South Side Slopes 3
Central Business District Bloomfield 1
Central Business District St Clair 1
Central Lawrenceville Bloomfield 1
Central Northside Crafton Heights 1
Central Northside Perry North 1
Central Northside Perry South 1
Central Northside South Side Flats 1
Crafton Heights Allegheny Center 1
Crafton Heights Brookline 1
Crafton Heights Carrick 1
Crafton Heights Central Lawrenceville 1
Crafton Heights Crawford-Roberts 1
Crafton Heights Elliott 1
Crafton Heights Hazelwood 1
Crafton Heights Marshall-Shadeland 1
Crafton Heights Mt Washington 1
Crafton Heights Sheraden 1
Crafton Heights Terrace Village 2
Crafton Heights West Oakland 1
Crawford-Roberts Crawford-Roberts 4
Crawford-Roberts Highland Park 1
Crawford-Roberts Middle Hill 1
Crawford-Roberts Terrace Village 1
Duquesne Heights Arlington 1
Duquesne Heights Elliott 1
East Allegheny Central Northside 1
East Allegheny East Allegheny 1
East Allegheny Hazelwood 1
East Allegheny Marshall-Shadeland 1
East Allegheny Sheraden 1
East Allegheny Troy Hill 1
East Hills Bluff 1
East Hills Garfield 1
East Hills Homewood South 1
East Hills Larimer 1
East Hills Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar 1
East Hills Terrace Village 1
East Liberty Bloomfield 5
East Liberty Central Business District 1
East Liberty East Liberty 16
East Liberty Garfield 2
East Liberty Hazelwood 2
East Liberty Homewood North 3
East Liberty Homewood South 1
East Liberty Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar 3
East Liberty Lower Lawrenceville 1
East Liberty Middle Hill 1
East Liberty Point Breeze 1
East Liberty Point Breeze North 1
East Liberty Terrace Village 1
East Liberty West Oakland 1
East Liberty Windgap 1
Elliott Allentown 1
Elliott Beechview 2
Elliott Crafton Heights 4
Elliott Elliott 3
Elliott Fairywood 1
Elliott Homewood South 1
Elliott Sheraden 2
Esplen South Oakland 1
Fairywood Fairywood 1
Fairywood Sheraden 1
Garfield Brighton Heights 1
Garfield Carrick 1
Garfield Crafton Heights 2
Garfield East Liberty 4
Garfield Garfield 2
Garfield Homewood North 1
Garfield Mt Washington 1
Garfield West Oakland 1
Greenfield Mt Washington 1
Hazelwood Allentown 1
Hazelwood Bluff 1
Hazelwood Carrick 3
Hazelwood Crafton Heights 1
Hazelwood Crawford-Roberts 2
Hazelwood East Liberty 1
Hazelwood Elliott 1
Hazelwood Hazelwood 10
Hazelwood Knoxville 3
Hazelwood Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar 2
Hazelwood Lower Lawrenceville 1
Hazelwood Marshall-Shadeland 1
Hazelwood Mt Washington 1
Hazelwood Sheraden 1
Hazelwood South Side Flats 1
Highland Park East Liberty 2
Highland Park Highland Park 3
Highland Park Larimer 2
Highland Park Sheraden 1
Homewood North Bloomfield 1
Homewood North East Hills 1
Homewood North East Liberty 1
Homewood North Homewood North 2
Homewood North Homewood South 1
Homewood South Bloomfield 1
Homewood South Bluff 1
Homewood South Carrick 1
Homewood South East Liberty 1
Homewood South Garfield 1
Homewood South Hazelwood 1
Homewood South Highland Park 1
Homewood South Homewood North 1
Homewood South Larimer 1
Homewood South Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar 1
Homewood South Perry South 1
Homewood West Homewood North 1
Knoxville Allentown 1
Knoxville Arlington 1
Knoxville Brighton Heights 1
Knoxville Brookline 1
Knoxville Carrick 11
Knoxville Crawford-Roberts 1
Knoxville East Carnegie 1
Knoxville East Liberty 1
Knoxville Hazelwood 2
Knoxville Knoxville 4
Knoxville Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar 1
Knoxville Marshall-Shadeland 1
Knoxville Perry North 2
Larimer Homewood South 2
Larimer Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar 2
Larimer Perry South 1
Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar Brookline 1
Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar Crafton Heights 1
Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar Crawford-Roberts 1
Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar Homewood North 2
Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar Larimer 1
Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar 1
Lower Lawrenceville East Hills 1
Lower Lawrenceville Highland Park 1
Lower Lawrenceville Morningside 1
Lower Lawrenceville Mt Washington 2
Lower Lawrenceville South Side Flats 2
Manchester Brighton Heights 1
Manchester Crafton Heights 1
Marshall-Shadeland Arlington 1
Marshall-Shadeland Brighton Heights 2
Marshall-Shadeland Carrick 1
Marshall-Shadeland Knoxville 2
Marshall-Shadeland Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar 1
Marshall-Shadeland Perry North 1
Marshall-Shadeland West Oakland 1
Middle Hill Bluff 1
Middle Hill Central Lawrenceville 1
Middle Hill Crawford-Roberts 1
Middle Hill East Hills 1
Middle Hill Homewood North 1
Middle Hill Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar 2
Middle Hill Sheraden 1
Middle Hill Upper Hill 1
Morningside Garfield 1
Morningside Hazelwood 1
Mt Washington Allentown 2
Mt Washington Bloomfield 1
Mt Washington Brighton Heights 1
Mt Washington Carrick 2
Mt Washington Marshall-Shadeland 1
Mt Washington Mt Washington 1
Mt Washington Sheraden 1
Perry North Carrick 1
Perry North Manchester 1
Perry North Marshall-Shadeland 3
Perry South Brighton Heights 1
Perry South East Allegheny 1
Perry South East Liberty 1
Perry South Homewood South 1
Perry South Manchester 1
Perry South Marshall-Shadeland 1
Perry South Mt Washington 1
Perry South Perry South 3
Point Breeze North Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar 1
Polish Hill Homewood North 1
Regent Square Regent Square 1
Sheraden Brookline 1
Sheraden Carrick 1
Sheraden Crafton Heights 1
Sheraden Elliott 1
Sheraden Homewood South 1
Sheraden Marshall-Shadeland 1
Sheraden Perry North 1
Sheraden Sheraden 10
Sheraden Windgap 1
South Oakland East Liberty 1
South Oakland Hazelwood 1
South Side Flats South Side Flats 1
South Side Slopes Allentown 1
South Side Slopes Arlington 1
South Side Slopes Beechview 1
South Side Slopes Beltzhoover 1
South Side Slopes Carrick 1
South Side Slopes Knoxville 1
South Side Slopes Lincoln Place 1
South Side Slopes South Side Slopes 2
Spring Garden Larimer 1
Spring Hill-City View Allentown 1
Spring Hill-City View Spring Hill-City View 1
St Clair Allentown 1
St Clair Beechview 1
St Clair Carrick 2
Stanton Heights Garfield 1
Stanton Heights Larimer 1
Stanton Heights Perry South 1
Terrace Village Allentown 1
Terrace Village South Oakland 1
Terrace Village Terrace Village 4
Terrace Village Upper Hill 1
Terrace Village West Oakland 1
Troy Hill Homewood South 1
Troy Hill Perry South 1
Upper Hill Bluff 1
Upper Hill Brighton Heights 1
Upper Hill Carrick 1
Upper Hill Crawford-Roberts 1
Upper Hill Middle Hill 1
Upper Lawrenceville Bluff 1
Upper Lawrenceville Carrick 1
Upper Lawrenceville Garfield 1
West End Allentown 1
West Oakland Carrick 1
West Oakland Hazelwood 1
West Oakland West Oakland 1

And yet Section 8 doesn’t begin to stem the tide.

Nationally, one in four households that’s eligible for a Section 8 voucher can get one, said Mary Cunningham, co-director of Metropolitan Housing and Community Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

Locally, the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh maintains a waiting list, and the last time the waiting list was opened — two years ago — more than 7,000 people applied to get on it in a two-week period, said David Weber, chief operations officer for the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh. “Not all of them will be eligible.

“We don’t want to give people false hope” that just because they get on the waiting list a unit will open up soon, he said. “The time before that, we had more than 13,000. We randomly selected 5,000.”

The federal budget offers no hope, either.

The 2017 federal budget for vouchers is $20 billion, and the proposal for 2018 is $19 billion.

“We’re moving in the opposite direction” from need, Ms. Cunningham said. “Local and state governments don’t have the resources to fill” the gap. “Some have housing trust funds to which they dedicate tax revenues or levies. In places where you have tighter rental markets or where incomes are stagnant — and that’s most places — you have a very large group of households feeling really rent burdened.”

Housing is considered affordable if you can pay for it with no more than 30 percent of your income.

Penn Plaza prior to demolition. (Emoni Jones)

Demolition on Penn Plaza began on Wednesday, June 21, 2017 in East Liberty. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

“There is no place in the country that has enough affordable housing to meet the need,” Ms. Cunningham said. “This is an issue that affects small and big cities and rural areas, and it’s going to get worse.”

Much housing stock that exists, whether vacant or affordable for purchase, would not meet the standards of Section 8 inspections, she said.

“One trend is that people are not always able to use a voucher if they’re lucky enough to get one,” said Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. “Part of the problem” is finding a landlord who will accept it.

She said the alliance has been working in Pittsburgh with landlords to help build relationships with service providers, such as a nonprofit with a client in a homeless shelter or someone with a disability. They act as navigators and help their client find a landlord.”

As Penn Plaza’s second building was vacating, East Liberty Gardens — an old public housing complex — was also emptying. The Housing Authority of Pittsburgh bought it from a HUD contract with a private owner and East Liberty Development managed it. It had 127 subsidized units.

Demolition on Penn Plaza in East Liberty. (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette )

Kendall Pelling, manager of land recycling for East Liberty Development, said more than half those tenants have been able to find something in an East End neighborhood. Twenty-eight households moved directly into replacement units built in the first phase of Cornerstone, a development that straddles East Liberty Boulevard, pulling Larimer into East Liberty’s orbit.

East Liberty Development owns and manages 40 subsidized rental units, some of them Section 8.

After East Liberty, Carrick has the highest number of voucher units with 265. Carrick is almost three times larger in area than East Liberty, so East Liberty has a higher saturation of vouchers, but that isn’t deterring anyone from plunking down $2,000 for a tiny new apartment there.

Whether saturation of vouchers in one neighborhood affects the overall well-being of the neighborhood is questionable. Many landlords offer low-income rents to people without vouchers.

“Section 8 in East Liberty doesn’t seem to bother the people moving in,” said Eric Jester, a former real estate staffer at East Liberty Development. He is now the CEO of New Burgh Real Estate.

“Poorly managed rental properties are poorly managed rental properties, no matter how the owner is paid in rent,” said Aaron Sukenik, executive director of the Hilltop Alliance in Allentown. The alliance’s sphere of neighborhoods includes Knoxville, which has the fourth most vouchers in the city with 219.

The difference between Knoxville and East Liberty is market enthusiasm, of which Knoxville has little. It is also not quite half the size of East Liberty. If saturation were an issue, it would be an issue there.

The Hilltop Alliance has worked on stabilizing properties as a way to keep people in their homes, “which is what’s ultimately going to lower demand for additional affordable housing,” Mr. Sukenik said.

Section 8 refers to the section of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937 that authorizes public rental assistance to private landlords on behalf of low-income households. It has been misused as a buzzword for crime, bad behaviors and bad landlords.

“There is no connection between how rents are paid and crime,” said Mr. Jester, who worked with the data analysis firm Numeritics to show that, between 2008-2012, when East Liberty Development bought nuisance properties from slumlords — who were not Section 8 landlords — crime dropped by almost half. “The connection to problems is [not vouchers but] landlords, and I can say that until I’m blue in the face.”  

Kate Giammarise

Diana Nelson Jones

Liz Navratil

Design & Development Zack Tanner

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