ANDERSON, S.C. — Inside a cheap hotel where poor people in this small town come because they have nowhere else, Sheila Simmons sits on a bed wondering if she might die soon.
She eats crackers for dinner because she has no money. On winter days, she grows afraid of being forced to live outside.
The disabled woman and her roommate already had asked friends and family if they could borrow $67, enough for another night at the extended-stay hotel, without success.
Simmons, 55, trudged almost a mile to Walmart on her painfully swollen feet and ankles. She put her pride aside and began begging for spare change. After a bit, she realized she wouldn’t collect enough for the next morning’s bill at the Intown Suites.
“I’m desperate. I can’t sleep outside in the cold,” said Simmons, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and severe arthritis. “I might really be at the graveyard end.”
Her motel stays, borrowing and begging came while unsuccessfully trying to use a federal Section 8 “housing choice voucher” – a hard-to-get ticket that was supposed to provide housing and some freedom in determining where she would live. A six-month USA TODAY Network data investigation called “Segregated by Section 8” has uncovered how broken the voucher system is in the housing-segregated South, even as President Joe Biden is poised to expand it.
A Section 8 voucher is meant to help people like Simmons get an apartment or house. The government agrees to pay a portion of rent directly to the landlord. The renters pay the rest of the costs on their own.
In a nation where 4 in 10 adults cannot cover an unexpected bill of $400, the idea is to help vulnerable people including combat vets, those who are older and those with disabilities avoid homelessness and handle basic needs.
For Simmons, the voucher at first had seemed lucky.
Some people in the South wait a decade to get a Section 8 voucher and never do. She had seen before how it could work.
Simmons, who is Black and a former tobacco farmworker, had years earlier escaped a period of living in a Jeep when she used a voucher to rent a simple two-bedroom trailer. It had water leaks, mildew and other problems but was a roof over her head and a warm place at night.
She was happily living there until the trailer failed a voucher program inspection and the government stopped paying her landlord.
Officials issued Simmons a replacement voucher that was meant to help her lease a different home. It was useless by that point, she said.
The voucher didn’t encompass a security deposit, and she could not afford one. She earns roughly $500 a month in federal disability benefits, so there was no chance she could pay the money that many landlords require upfront, such as a security deposit or the last month's rent.
Where was that money supposed to come from?
Simmons squatted in the moldy trailer that failed inspection until the landlord kicked her out in December. On the day she was evicted, she sobbed as movers took furniture, TVs, her cane, her other possessions and dumped them on the front lawn.
She walked away with just a book bag bursting with clothes and two boxes of personal papers. And a federal voucher she couldn’t use.
Within a short period of time, her winter fears had come true.
Simmons found herself sitting at a bus stop with no money and no place to spend the night. With the temperature hovering at 40 degrees, she and her roommate shared the one coat they owned.
They took turns wearing it.
Analysis uncovers patterns of a broken promise
Simmons’ experience shows how a government program meant to improve the lives of recipients has instead left many people homeless, living in substandard housing or pay-by-the-week motels. Others find permanent housing but are stuck in racially segregated neighborhoods with dim prospects for jobs and good schools.
USA TODAY Network-Southeast spent months investigating what happens when people try to obtain housing with public vouchers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia – four states where the nation’s severe shortage of affordable housing has metastasized into an eviction crisis.
We followed the journeys of voucher holders as they searched for housing or tried to keep it, and interviewed more than 40 researchers, housing activists and government officials.
Our project team partnered with the University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s Urban Institute to analyze multisource federal data for 19 cities and create exclusive maps revealing that housing available to voucher holders – who most often are Black and Latino – often remains concentrated in neighborhoods where the federal government and real-estate industry conducted redlining.
The white-dominated society's practice of redlining, now illegal, used bank maps and lending controls to steer Black citizens and other people of color into certain areas and keep them from living next to white people.
Experts who have conducted research for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development said the data analysis represents the first-ever comprehensive regional examination of how voucher holders fare in a spread of small, medium and large markets. Previous studies have generally examined only some larger urban areas.
Alison Johnson, executive director of the Housing Justice League, an Atlanta-based advocacy group that runs a public hotline, sees the scope of the problem "Segregated by Section 8" has identified.
“We get 10 to 15 calls a day from people with vouchers who say they want help because they have no place to live,” Johnson said. “If you are a mother with four children, there is no way you are going to be able to pay a $1,675 security deposit. The program isn’t being allowed to function as it was set up.”
Investigation uncovers key findings
The voucher program reinforces racially segregated housing patterns across the South, breaking the government’s promises to use the subsidy to promote racial integration.
Data compiled for "Segregated by Section 8" shows more than 70% of voucher-eligible housing is concentrated in minority neighborhoods with rampant poverty.
Many affluent, white neighborhoods in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia have almost no voucher-eligible housing.
If you put your name on a waiting list for vouchers in the South, you can wait years, even a decade, to get benefits. Then, many people awarded vouchers have their benefits terminated before they can find an appropriate place to live.
More than 8 million households are eligible for Section 8 housing vouchers. Yet only 2.2 million households receive the rental subsidy.
Most people who qualify for vouchers never get any help. Senior citizens, people with disabilities, military vets and other vulnerable Black and brown people end up sleeping in homeless shelters, motels and crowded housing with family or friends.
Children of voucher holders who do live in more affluent neighborhoods are more likely to go to college and have higher earnings over their lifetimes.
‘Our backs are against the wall’
Inside the Wragg Borough Homes, a public housing complex in Charleston, South Carolina, vermin droppings and dead cockroaches cover a kitchen counter. Walls, cabinets and vents are smeared with mildew and suspected mold.
On the worst days, the place reeks of sewage. It’s where Theresa Mozzee and her daughter, Miracle, had lived for the past five years.
This is where Theresa Mozzee recuperated from nine surgeries, where she learned to walk again after leaving the hospital and where she found the only place she could afford the rent. The disabled 59-year-old grandmother tried to make the best of her two-bedroom unit, cleaning whenever her arthritis allowed and buying bug killer to keep the roaches away from her grandchildren when they visited.
One day last year, Mozzee started coughing and getting headaches. A doctor said a respiratory illness she suffered might be caused by exposure to mold.
She complained to the Housing Authority of the City of Charleston, the local government agency that manages public housing. The Wragg Borough Homes apartments were first built in the 1940s as segregated public housing for Black people. Charleston’s hot, humid weather and rain make them susceptible to mold, mildew and flooding.
The housing agency made some repairs and later offered a dehumidifier to reduce the chances of mold spreading.
As the months came and went, Mozzee, who has been diagnosed with cancer and lupus, grew more worried about the risks to her health. She didn’t want to live in her apartment, but what choice did she have?
“We have had so many episodes where she has broken down and I have broken down,” her daughter said. “Stress makes my mom sicker. I honestly don’t know what we are going to do. Our backs are against the wall.”
The money from the cleaning business her mom once owned was long gone. Miracle Mozzee, 23, had quit her job at a preschool to care for her mother and to avoid infecting her with COVID-19.
They looked at renting a vacant house, but the numbers didn’t work. The Mozzees needed $1,400 to pay the security deposit and first month’s rent.
When Miracle checked her bank account, it was overdrawn.
The disappearance of American public housing
In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration put a moratorium on construction of new government housing. President Richard Nixon described public housing buildings as “monstrous, depressing places – rundown, overcrowded, crime-ridden.”
He and other leaders said people could move from dilapidated public housing by using vouchers to rent homes from private landlords.
Public housing apartments like the Mozzees’ have been falling into disrepair and vanishing at an alarming rate – on purpose. It has been a consistent American political choice for decades.
There is a $70 billion backlog of repairs needed in public housing complexes throughout the country, according to a 2019 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a leading Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. More than 10,000 public housing units are shuttered each year because they are considered uninhabitable.
Instead of replacing all the lost units, the federal government – under both Republican and Democratic leadership – has focused on providing limited rental subsidies.
“We are not a country that has a lot of care for our poor,” said Kirk McClure, an urban planning professor emeritus at the University of Kansas who has conducted research for HUD.
The Housing Authority of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, opened its voucher waiting list two years ago. Some 1,000 people had their names added through a lottery, said Carol McCall, the agency’s operations director.
More than 4,000 people applied online. “It’s really hard to listen to some of these stories and know there’s nothing you can do,” she said.
In Charleston, the wait for vouchers is longer than a year, said Don Cameron, president and CEO of the city’s Housing Authority.
He didn't know when Theresa Mozzee might even get to put her name on the waiting list.
Dealing with landlords on your own
When someone gets a voucher, public housing agencies explain during an optional orientation how to use the voucher and share listings where landlords accept vouchers.
Voucher holders then must find apartments or houses that meet inspection standards and where the rents do not exceed the program’s limits. They discover that landlords often refuse to accept vouchers as payment.
Scott Dadson, recent executive director of a group that oversees the vouchers in Polk, Rutherford, McDowell and Cleveland counties in North Carolina, said 60% of their clients can’t find a rental unit with a voucher. It expires first.
He said the failure is caused by a lack of affordable housing in the area.
At times, administrators refer voucher holders to churches that might be willing to pay security deposits or moving costs.
Some researchers and housing activists said the federal government has refused to give agencies enough money. Local agencies get 80% of what is necessary, said Will Fischer, a senior director at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In progressive Orange County, North Carolina, officials use local tax money to pay for security deposits, application fees and other expenses for voucher holders, said Emila Sutton, the county’s former director of housing. The county hired a coordinator who assists people with their search for a place to live and recruits new landlords.
Officials considered it a victory when new landlords recently signed up to rent to tenants with vouchers. Landlords can get a $1,000 signing bonus for participating.
“We just decided that we need to see people in permanent housing, especially in a pandemic,” Sutton said. “In a few months, we have added five new landlords. It sounds small, but it is huge for us.”
A father’s only hope
Biden has pledged to expand the voucher program, which some experts see as a key to curing economic suffering caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Biden said he would offer vouchers to all qualified renters, like “universal voucher” programs used in the United Kingdom, Australia and parts of Canada.
Biden has pledged to pass legislation that would prevent landlords from rejecting applicants for vacant houses and apartments because they use federal benefits such as vouchers to pay rent.
HUD did not directly answer most of our questions and did not make officials available for on-the-record interviews.
Instead, HUD provided a written statement, saying Congress has approved plans to launch a $50 million demonstration project this year that would allow selected public housing offices to pay security deposits, application fees and other costs for voucher holders.
Housing administrators would also provide “counseling” to help recipients move into desirable neighborhoods and overcome credit histories that could scare off landlords.
The idea is to test whether the strategies can improve outcomes for voucher holders and be duplicated across the country. Officials will likely evaluate the strategies for 18 months to two years before deciding if they work.
The changes might come too late for Orlando Ager Jr.
Ager had one hope for finding a place to live – a housing voucher. In late 2020, a public housing agency in Shelby, North Carolina, awarded him one.
Officials gave him 90 days to find an apartment or house. When that deadline came and went, they gave him an extension.
Ager said he needed a two-bedroom house or apartment, enough room for the oldest of his five children, a 13-year-old son, to live with him. “He really wants to come stay with me,” he said.
The teen plays football and basketball in middle school but has fallen off track academically, said his dad, who has become nervous about the boy’s future. He wants to make sure his son avoids the same mistakes he’s made. Ager, 36, spent three months behind bars after a conviction for selling or delivering drugs, records show. He said he needed the money.
He hasn’t had stable housing outside of jail since a 2018 fire destroyed the house where he and an uncle had lived for years. He once spent three months in a motel.
A $731 monthly disability check was all the money he had coming in, and it was not enough to pay for housing, child support and other bills.
Ager worked in a factory making products for plastics until last fall when he fell ill with symptoms from sickle cell anemia. It put him in the emergency room a dozen times in a single year.
As spring approached, Ager was sleeping at his parents’ house. His cellphone had been cut off because the bill was unpaid, making it harder for potential landlords to contact him.
He was running out of time to find housing with his Section 8 voucher.
Fred Clasen-Kelly is an award-winning enterprise and investigative reporter based in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is the Housing & Social Justice Ramifications reporter for USA TODAY Network-Southeast. Send story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story is part of a six-month investigation by USA TODAY-Southeast called "Segregated by Section 8," which followed public housing seekers and analyzed available data in new ways. Read more about the series here.
The team behind Segregated by Section 8
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Section 8 voucher program keeps people homeless, segregated by race