Jim Lewis is a 55-year-old landlord who specializes in finding tenants for hard-to-rent units in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Baltimore. On more than one occasion I watched Lewis work his magic, often with single moms he calls “Section 8 girls,” after the former name of a federal housing-voucher program.
He chauffeurs them from their front door to the vacant property, whisking them straight from the car into the newly renovated home, with little time to take in the neighborhood. He opens the door to reveal a sparkling new kitchen, refreshed with upscale amenities—glossy granite countertops, stainless steel appliances—that distract from the oftentimes dilapidated houses next door.
Lewis puts his strategy in simple terms: “It’s like, if you build a better mousetrap—you know how they say that?” (The landlords in this story have been given pseudonyms in order to protect their confidentiality, which was granted as a condition of their participation in my research.)
Landlords in every city are salesmen aiming to persuade potential renters, which may lead them to underplay a property’s flaws and exaggerate its strengths. But what’s happening in cities such as Baltimore is different: Landlords lure renters to disadvantaged neighborhoods, perpetuating housing segregation and limiting social mobility.
Baltimore has a long history of de facto racial apartheid, but today, it persists within one of the very programs designed to dismantle the problem: housing vouchers.
It was hoped that Housing Choice Vouchers, previously called “Section 8,” would break up dense concentrations of poverty by subsidizing rents for poor families. But the program has fallen far short of its promise. By and large, voucher holders are not moving to areas of opportunity.
They are not finding places to rent in neighborhoods that include a mix of higher-income people, the kind of move shown in recent research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and others to have long-term positive impacts on health and economic well-being. Rather, voucher holders are now concentrated in poor neighborhoods.
This is even more the case for black voucher holders, whose neighborhoods are far more segregated than those of white voucher holders. Why are these patterns of segregation being recreated under a system that was meant to undo them?
A big part of the answer lies in a middleman: the landlord. Landlords play a key role in where people find homes. Yet their role in sorting residents in and out of neighborhoods remains largely unseen.
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