Story posted March 01, 2008
Waiting for Section 8: A Preliminary Report of Research on Section 8 Waiting List Families in the Brunswick Area
Prepared for the Maine Association of Public Housing Directors
By Benjamin Coquillette '08, Emily Krull '08, Amanda Wing '08, and Craig McEwen, Daniel B. Fayerweather Professor of Political Economy and Sociology
March 27, 2008
Section 8 waiting lists — many of them long and some closed — tell part of the story about the desperate struggles for adequate housing among many Maine families. An on-going research collaboration between Bowdoin College and Brunswick Housing Authority provides additional insight about housing challenges in the mid-coast Maine region. In order to learn how families manage to house themselves while waiting for Section 8 vouchers, research teams of Bowdoin students are interviewing families on the waiting list.
During these interviews, families on the Section 8 waiting list described their difficulties in finding safe and stable homes. These families, all of which include children, often reside in structurally inadequate, crowded or poorly heated dwellings. A few even find themselves temporarily — but not officially — homeless, living in a shelter, car, or with a friend or family-member. Those families who have managed to find a place to live still face a host of other problems. In particular, they often teeter on the financial edge, paying an unacceptably high proportion (in many instances over half) of their monthly incomes towards rent. As a consequence, they must skimp on food, clothes and other essential costs simply in order to stay housed. As one respondent stated "I have to wake up and think: how am I going to make today work? Do I have enough money? I have bills that I have to pay and I think: how am I going to pay them? It is hard and it gets real depressing, [but] it's something that comes up every day."
Although some critics have claimed that the Section 8 program serves largely as an income subsidy for adequately housed but poor families, a glimpse at those on the Section 8 waiting list shows that many are not only poor but are living in physically inadequate spaces. Eight of the initial 20 families interviewed reported living in faulty structures that lacked proper heating or insulation or that had flood damage or any number of other structural problems. In one case, for example, a woman reported living in a trailer home that had already been condemned. "It had a hole in the hallway," she recalled, "and there was water coming down the ceiling onto the wall ... the windows were this far apart — you could see through to the outside...we wore coats and jackets and blankets." Of the same surveyed group, three more families reported living in garages or unfinished basements, spaces that while structurally intact, but were never meant to be lived in.
Beyond simply facing problems with the structural quality of their housing, many on the Section 8 waiting list are doubled up in housing and short on space. Five of the 20 families reported living in overcrowded conditions while waiting for housing vouchers. In one such case, a young mother and her 14-month-old daughter shared a two bedroom house with five other people. "It's cramped; it's hard, because there are so many people. It's too bad because I don't get to do the things with my daughter the way I'd like to if we had our own place." The woman's mother sleeps on the couch so that she and her daughter Kelly can have a bedroom. "I have my stuff in storage at other peoples' houses all over the place. Kelly doesn't even have her crib; she sleeps in bed with me, because I don't have anywhere to put her crib." Another interview told the story of nine people crammed into a three bedroom apartment. These Section 8 applicants often had nowhere else to live and found the only shelter they could by moving in with friends or parents. Nine of the surveyed families reported relying on this kind of support — a prospect which is not only uncomfortable but also strains many interpersonal relationships — at some point while on the Section 8 list.
Interviews further revealed that all too often, families on the Section 8 waiting list find themselves without any home at all. Six of the twenty families in the initial survey reported experiencing an episode of homelessness while waiting for Section 8 housing. Unable to move in with friends or lacking nearby family, these families were forced into homeless shelters, tents, and cars. In one case a family with a 15-year old daughter found themselves living in a tent in their friend's back yard for several months after being evicted from their previous house when the father lost his job because of illness. When the weather started getting cold, they moved into an unfinished basement. The family slept on cement floors in a room heated with an electric heater. The poor living conditions exacerbated the husband's illnesses, increasing the strain on the family. The wife stated that "this situation has put us down so far it's hard to get up out of it. It's a vicious cycle and I am just hoping that we will be able to see the light." In another interview, a woman revealed that she and her two small girls slept in their car and in motel rooms before space opened at the local Tedford family shelter. Tedford, like many homeless shelters in the area, runs at full capacity and must turn away 20 families a month. Many of these local resources are overtaxed, and for many Section 8 families struggling to find housing, there are few options.
Although interviews are unable to determine exactly what impact inadequate housing may have on family members, research suggests that unsafe homes can have significant negative, long-term effects on children. Shipler (2005) noted that damp, drafty, and poorly heated housing can exacerbate children's illnesses. Low income families are more likely to reside in damp and moldy housing which has been found to exacerbate respiratory problems, asthma, diarrhea, nausea, and headaches (Shenassa et al., 2007). According to Evans (2006), children living in poor housing conditions are more likely to be psychologically distressed and are more likely to have problems in cognitive development. Living in crowded conditions can also impact children's interpersonal behaviors, mental health, motivation, and cognitive processes (Evans, 2006). Family relations are often more strained and children are more likely to be maltreated (Evans, 2006, p. 429-430). While interviews of families waiting for Section 8 in Midcoast Maine cannot predict precisely how children in the surveyed families will fare in the future, their circumstances suggest that they are at risk for physical, behavioral, and cognitive difficulties as they age.
In Midcoast Maine the long waits for Section 8 that many families endure exact a toll. Applicants find themselves subject to challenging circumstances that can have severe impacts on the emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being of children and adults. And those circumstances do not make it any easier for families to rebuild their lives through school or work. "I just wish that the waiting list wasn't so long," one woman said "because...in the meantime you're going further and further and further in debt and there's no way of getting out once you're in there. It's like 'help, get me out!'" Many Section 8 applicants already shoulder part and full-time jobs in their efforts to stay above water. All of them want to provide a safe and stable environment for their children to grow up in. One applicant, who has been waiting for Section 8 housing for eight months put it clearly: "All the people trying to get assistance are not mentally disabled or habitually homeless or habitually in need. I'd like to think of myself as an intelligent woman who is just really going through a hard time and trying to get on my feet. I would love to be a college graduate and take care of my children and have my own house someday. I would love that. I am really appreciative of whatever is given to me. It's humbling asking for help because you want to do it all yourself, and you do not want to admit that you can't." With increased support for Section 8 housing, more parents and their children could live in safe, comfortable, and stable homes, and the social and human costs created by long waits for subsidized housing could be reduced.
Evans, Gary W. "Child Development and the Physical Environment." Annual Review of Psychology, 57: 423-451 (2006).
Edmond D. Shenassa, et al."Dampness and Mold in the Home and Depression: An Examination of Mold-Related Illness and Perceived Control of One's Home as Depression Pathways." American Journal of Public Health, 97: 1893-1899 (2007).
Shipler, D. K. The Working Poor: Invisible in America. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.