In 2010, Aishia Shavers applied for a City of Pittsburgh Housing Choice Voucher in the hope that it would get her a decent apartment to live in with her three children. With a voucher, she could move from McKeesport to a safer neighborhood. She wouldn't have to work so much overtime -- lately, about 20 hours a week -- to cover the $650 a month rent for her apartment.
In February, after four years on a waiting list, she finally got it. With 120 days to find an apartment, she sent out dozens of emails and made dozens of phone calls. She posted an ad on Craigslist announcing her "desperate need" for a housing choice rental in Pittsburgh.
But she couldn't find anything. Most of the landlords said they don't accept the vouchers, widely known as Section 8 (after the section of the 1937 Housing Act that authorized them). Many of them never called her back. A few could only show her their apartments when she had to be at work.
One landlord had a place open in Homewood. But he said he wouldn't recommend it for a family because it was in a high-crime area, Ms. Shavers said.
When her voucher expired on May 11, she hadn't even toured an apartment.
"I was angry," she said. "I finally get my voucher, and there's nothing. I can't use it."
Like Ms. Shavers, many local families have trouble finding apartments they can rent with their housing choice vouchers, which let them pay about 30 to 40 percent of their income for rent, with the federal government covering the rest. They face rents that are too high and landlords who don't want to undergo the inspections required to take part in the program. Discrimination also plays a part, housing advocates say.
Often, their options are limited to low-income areas. That's contributed to the clustering of housing choice tenants in some neighborhoods, violating the program's goal of providing economically mixed housing.
An analysis of data from the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh shows that housing choice units in Pittsburgh are disproportionately located in high-poverty, majority-minority neighborhoods like Knoxville, Homewood South and the Middle Hill. In each of those neighborhoods, more than 10 percent of housing was housing choice units in 2011. In Squirrel Hill North and Shadyside, on the other hand, less than a tenth of a percent of the housing was Section 8.
David Weber, the authority's interim chief operation officer, said the authority was "very aware" that housing choice tenants are clustered in some neighborhoods.
"Why are they concentrated in those neighborhoods? There's probably a lot of factors," he said. "Availability of affordable housing is one."
Barriers to housing choice
As an attorney, Dan Vitek has represented many families that use Section 8 vouchers. Safety is a big concern for them in their apartment search, he said.
"People say they want to get out of the hood -- there are people dealing, there's too much drama, noise in the streets, gunfire they want to get away from," said Mr. Vitek, who works for the Neighborhood Legal Services Association, a nonprofit that provides free legal help.
That's what Candace Colbert, of Homewood, hopes to do. Ms. Colbert, who has been in the housing choice program for about a decade, wants to settle with her two children in a "quiet, family-oriented" neighborhood like Highland Park or Bloomfield.
For seven years, her voucher helped her pay for a place in Bloomfield. She loved it there -- it was quiet and close to a bus line and a hospital. But she had to leave after her landlord failed the housing choice program's inspections and sold the place rather than make repairs, she said. Ms. Colbert tried to find another place in Bloomfield, but rents in the area became too high after the new Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC was built, she said.
She settled on a row house in Homewood. It's a relatively safe part of the neighborhood, but she still wants to move. She hears gunshots sometimes, and she's noticed her daughter picking up slang from the street.
"It's frustrating," said Ms. Colbert, who worked as a receptionist at Neighborhood Legal Services until 2012. "You want to live somewhere comfortable. I'd like to find somewhere I can just settle down."
Some housing choice tenants choose to live in neighborhoods like Homewood, where they grew up and where their friends and family are, Mr. Vitek said. But many of them are like Ms. Colbert: eager to move to a safer neighborhood, but running into barriers.
The Fair Housing Partnership of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that advocates for equal housing opportunity, collects data that shows the challenges voucher holders face. In a 2010 phone survey of local housing providers, it found that only 24 percent accepted Section 8 vouchers.
The partnership has also turned up evidence of discrimination faced by voucher holders and other tenants. With grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it tests local housing providers for discrimination by race, sexual orientation, disability and familial status -- for example, a landlord refusing to rent to a woman with several children.
In 2011, 34.9 percent of the tests performed by the partnership showed evidence of discrimination, according to a report from the Pittsburgh Department of City Planning.
"People no longer look someone in the face and say, 'I'm not going to rent to you because you are' -- and you can fill in the blank. What people do now is discriminate with a smile and a handshake," said Jay Dworin, the partnership's executive director.
Some landlords turn down housing choice vouchers because they're worried there will be a delay between when the tenant moves in and the housing authority begins paying the rent, Mr. Dworin said.
Mr. Weber acknowledged that this sometimes happens because the housing authority can't begin payment until the lease and housing contract are executed. It can also take time for payments to be processed, he said.
The authority is trying to become more "landlord-friendly" by streamlining payments and hiring two employees to act as liaisons with landlords. It hopes that this will encourage more landlords to take the vouchers.
Sometimes, landlords discriminate against Section 8 tenants because of a stigma attached to them, Mr. Dworin said.
"You have a group of people who are saying, 'We don't want these people to be here. These people come to my neighborhood, they're going to ruin my neighborhood,' " Mr. Dworin said. "But that's a fallacy."
A change in thinking about public housing
City Councilman Ricky Burgess is an advocate for mixed-income housing, pushing for developments in East Liberty, the Hill District and Larimer that blend low-income units with market-rate ones.
His passion for the issue comes from his childhood in Homewood. When he grew up there in the late 1950s and early '60s, it had more of a middle class. That made it a less violent and more aspirational area than it is today, he said, when about a third of its population lives in poverty and vacant lots scar its landscape.
"Growing up in a poor neighborhood, you don't have so many role models to choose from. But when you grow up with a physician, being a physician isn't so far off," said Mr. Burgess, who sits on housing authority's board and served as its chairman until this year. "To the extent you make communities mixed-income, you bring hope back to those communities. You teach children to value education and correct behavior."
In recent decades, public housing policies have pivoted toward an emphasis on mixed-income housing. In part, it's a response to the failed housing projects of the past, which often created isolated pockets of poverty with high crime rates.
Following a nationwide trend, the Pittsburgh Housing Authority has shied away from building and managing its own housing. Now, it works with private developers to build housing where low-income units are side-by-side with market-rate ones. That's what led it to demolish the crime-ridden Addison Terrace projects in the Hill District in 2012 to make way for 400 new units, 30 percent of them rented at market rate.
"In a healthy community, you have people from a variety of incomes," Mr. Weber said. "The theory is it creates a more friendly environment. Kids see people getting up and going to work. Neighbors create the expectation that that's what you're supposed to do."
Local housing advocates have ideas to dissolve the clusters of housing choice units. Mr. Burgess thinks the solution is to build more affordable housing and to use market trends to bring a mixture of incomes to low-income areas. For example, the prosperity of East Liberty and Point Breeze could be encouraged to spill into Homewood.
Mr. Dworin wants to see it become illegal to discriminate based on a tenant's source of income. That way, a landlord couldn't turn down a tenant because her rent is paid with a housing choice voucher. It would also help, he said, if Pittsburgh used the policy of inclusionary zoning, which requires a portion of new housing to be affordable for low- and middle-income people.
On top of all that, housing choice tenants who can't find decent apartments need to raise awareness of their struggle, he said.
"Here in Pittsburgh, the one thing we really, really need is for folks to speak up, to become engaged," Mr. Dworin said. "People are not going to get access to housing ... unless someone is speaking up and saying, 'Hey, they're denying.' Until that happens on a wide scale, we're going to continue to have a big challenge."
Richard Webner: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-4903