Kawana Jasper, who receives a housing voucher from the Housing Authority of New Orleans' Section 8 program, considered signing up for a new initiative aimed at letting her move her into a higher-income neighborhood.
But the Pontchartrain Park resident hesitated, not because she couldn't afford the new digs, but because she was worried about how her wealthier neighbors might perceive her.
"I would personally love the opportunity, because most of the time it’s in a very lovely neighborhood with a diverse community," Jasper said. "But one of my cons, I think, is whether I would be accepted ... and I had my kids to think about."
Jasper is one of many tenants who have passed on taking advantage of an initiative intended to fix some of the ills of Section 8, the HANO program that pays private landlords to provide public housing.
Her rationale is perhaps one of the reasons why the reform continues to fall short of its broader goal: to reduce concentrations of poverty by moving low-income residents into neighborhoods that offer the opportunity of better lives.
Housing officials last year tried to reform Section 8 by offering certain property owners higher subsidies. The thought was that the bigger payouts would encourage more landlords to participate and ultimately lead to better housing for voucher holders.
But although the program has been around for a full year, its participants generally continue to live in areas of high poverty, HANO officials said recently.
HANO has nonetheless extended the pilot program indefinitely and says more outreach to landlords and prospective tenants could help fix its shortcomings.
"If someone can afford a higher rent ... but there aren’t owners in the Riverbend or Audubon (neighborhoods) who will accept the voucher," that's a problem, said Nyssa LeBeau, a HANO analyst.
The housing authority hopes its new strategy will eventually remedy a huge flaw of the voucher program. Though Section 8 was envisioned in the 1970s as a way to move poor residents out of segregated housing projects and into mixed-income neighborhoods, it has been dogged by the formula it uses to pay the landlords who participate.
A private landlord receives a third of a Section 8 tenant's income, while the government pays the rest of the rent. But the feds base their payout on the average rents in an entire metropolitan area, including the cheaper rents in a city's suburbs.
The resulting check often isn't enough to entice landlords who must pay high property taxes to participate in the program. That means Section 8 tenants can get pushed into a city's lower-income areas.
To change that, HANO got the OK from the Department of Housing and Urban Development last year to base at least some of its payouts on the average rents in specific ZIP codes, rather than in the whole metro area.
The authority was authorized to pay out more money to landlords in five ZIP codes that had low poverty rates, higher rents and few voucher tenants. Those were the 70115, 70116, 70118, 70124 and 70130 ZIP codes, which include the Audubon, Freret, Marigny and Lower Garden District neighborhoods, to name a few.
Landlords not in the program typically got $909 a month from HANO for a one-bedroom apartment, but those in the 70130 ZIP code, for example, could get $1,287 for a similar unit. In all, HANO paid about $46,000 for the reform, a fraction of its $194 million annual budget.
The authority then recruited 140 tenants to move into the five ZIP codes. But even though landlords were offered more in rent than is normal, the average poverty rate of the census tracts the families moved into — smaller areas within those ZIP codes — was 36 percent, LeBeau said.
That's nearly 3 percentage points higher than the average poverty rate for the nearly 18,000 families in the traditional Section 8 program.
In short, the program was moving people into pockets of poverty in generally well-off sections of the city.
"This tells us that unfortunately we are not seeing as much benefit as we would like to see from these new higher (payments)," LeBeau said.
A 2017 HUD preliminary report suggests the changes have been only slightly more beneficial in other places. After five separate city or state housing authorities administered the program for three years, the percentage of voucher residents living in high-rent ZIP codes rose by only 3 points.
Frustrating the local effort is — again — the way HUD calculates how much it is willing to pay in rent. Though HUD lets HANO base its new subsidies upon a smaller geographical area, it doesn't consider the range of incomes within city ZIP codes, LeBeau and HANO Executive Director Gregg Fortner said. A better calculation might figure in the average rent for a certain neighborhood, rather than for a city ZIP code.
The 70118 ZIP code, for example, includes both the relatively upscale Uptown and Carrollton areas and the much poorer Hollygrove-Dixon area.
Another issue is that the program does not cover the security deposit a tenant might be asked to provide.
HANO also needs to better educate landlords and tenants on the program’s benefits, the authority has acknowledged. HANO has partnered with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center to try to recruit more landlords. That group has encouraged landlords who already have Section 8 vouchers to spread the word about the benefits of the new program.
A number of the landlords tapped as "ambassadors" are real estate agents who can pitch the benefits to clients looking for new rentals. HANO also hopes to offer more counseling to tenants.
After reviewing the data on the program, HANO board member Lisha Wheeler questioned its efficacy. "It's counterintuitive that there should be a higher poverty rate" in neighborhoods participants are moving into, "and we are paying more money ... because those are the things that arguably, we should be trying to work to remedy."
But member Alice Reiner said the program is still in its infancy. "With a new program like this, it might take a bit of time to get the word out," she said.
Still, local tenants like Jasper, a former resident of the St. Bernard housing development, have heard of the program but may have rejected it to avoid being stigmatized in a new neighborhood.
Jasper said she's heard too many horror stories from Section 8 tenants who moved to certain areas, only to be reported to neighborhood associations or otherwise singled out because of their finances or race.
"I wouldn’t want to subject my kids to those types of things, because sometimes it can lead to an everlasting scar," she said. "There are many things that could prohibit you from taking advantage of that opportunity."