A government proposal could separate families with immigrants and U.S. citizens by banning undocumented members from public housing. Advocates are organizing in response and say the solution is more affordable housing so families can escape poverty.
Single mother Patricia is undocumented. She wakes up every day worrying that her entire family will be evicted if the federal government bans undocumented people from living in public housing.
“If this happens, I don’t know where I will go,” Patricia says. “In the street? The only thing I can think of is how I am all alone in this with my children.”
Patricia, originally from Jalisco, Mexico, lives in Los Angeles. She has four children, all U.S. citizens. The oldest, diagnosed with schizophrenia, lives with his wife a few miles away. He sends part of his Supplemental Security Income check each month to help support Patricia and her three younger children. The next child is 25 years old and also faces mental health challenges. The two youngest are 11 and 9 – the 9-year-old is in special education classes at the local elementary school.
Under Section 214 of the U.S. Housing and Community Development Act of 1980, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for public housing subsidies or for Section 8 vouchers, which subsidize rents on the open market. But if undocumented immigrants live with U.S.-citizen children or spouses, or with immigrants who are allowed access to public benefits, they can stay with them in the public or Section 8 housing. The government just doesn’t pay their portion of the rent. (The categories of immigrants who are eligible for subsidies include legal permanent residents, refugees, asylees and a few other groups.)
In Patricia’s case, that means her three children qualify for benefits, but the family has to pay Patricia’s portion of the rent themselves.
Under political pressure from President Donald Trump and his senior adviser Stephen Miller, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently proposed changing the rules so that no undocumented person can live in public housing or in housing rented using Section 8 vouchers – even if they are paying their share of the rent. HUD officials are also proposing proof-of-citizenship requirements for receiving public housing.
If the changes are implemented, thousands of families like Patricia’s will face a terrible choice. They can either split the family up and send the undocumented mother or father out onto the streets, or they can keep the family together and risk everyone becoming homeless.
Ostensibly, the rule change is designed to free up housing for U.S. citizens on long wait lists. However, there are upwards of four million families on those wait-lists, so kicking out a few tens of thousands of mixed-status families – HUD’S analysts estimate about 25,000 families – won’t really make much of a dent.
For wait-list numbers to come down, there would have to be huge federal investments in public housing – which Congress and the White House show no appetite for funding. Scapegoating immigrant families absent these investments might make for good politics, but it doesn’t make for effective public policy.
In fact, HUD’s own researchers recently released an impact analysis estimating that replacing mixed-status families with fully eligible families would cost the department upwards of $200 million, since a portion of each unit’s rent would no longer be payable by the undocumented resident.
And with no additional public housing funding forthcoming, the easiest way to cover that difference would be to have fewer families in public housing or on Section 8 vouchers.
“The federal government could respond by re-directing resources from other HUD activities to assisted housing,” the HUD team wrote in the impact analysis. “Another, and perhaps the likeliest scenario, would be that HUD would have to reduce the quantity and quality of assisted housing in response to higher costs.”
HUD officials did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Bill Przylucki, executive director of People Organized for Westside Renewal (POWER, LA), says Los Angeles tenants have seen through this bait-and-switch ruse and are organizing against the changes.
“You care so much about evicting my neighbor, you’re going to endanger my Section 8 voucher?” he says residents are asking. “No, that’s not OK. This is an attack on immigrants and an attack on HUD.”
“It’s part of a bigger, coordinated attack on immigrant families,” says Renato Rocha, a policy analyst at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), part of a national coalition of organizations fighting to defend immigrants’ rights. “We all care for people struggling to find affordable housing, but blaming immigrant families will not solve this problem. The real issue is lack of adequate funding.”
According to estimates from the Center on Budget and Policy Priority, there are approximately 9,400 mixed-status families in public housing, and about 16,000 on Section 8 vouchers. They are largely clustered in California, New York and Texas.
The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) wrote to Congress in May asking for the proposed changes to be withdrawn. HACLA officials estimated 6,500 Los Angelenos could face eviction from public housing, and nearly 4,000 could lose Section 8 housing – making an already catastrophic homelessness crisis in the city even worse.
In New York, Gabriel Strachota, lead organizer with Community Voices Heard, estimates that thousands are also at risk of eviction.
All around the country, the fear is palpable.
“When my mother first applied for housing assistance, she wasn’t applying for herself but for her children,” says Paola, who works for a social-justice organization. “We were U.S. citizens, and she was allowed to sign the lease so we could gain housing – because we were all minors.”
Her mother has been living undocumented for 32 years, trying to make ends meet by picking up child-care jobs and by recycling cans and bottles. She still lives in public housing along with two of her younger children.
“I’m the only person in my family who graduated from college and the only one who makes a living wage,” says Paola. Her family “literally wouldn’t have a place to stay,” if the rule changes kick in, she says.
The public comment period for HUD’s proposal lasts until mid-July, and it will take several additional months for housing officials to read and respond to comments. But if, come year’s end, the changes kick in and render mixed-status families ineligible for housing benefits, 55,000 U.S.-citizen children are at risk of becoming homeless, according to HUD’s own estimates. Thousands of adults could also end up on the streets.
“I’m very afraid,” says Joanne, a 51-year-old public housing resident in the Pacoima region of Los Angeles. She has lived undocumented for decades and works odd-jobs for cash – always earning far less than the legal hourly minimum wage.
She and her U.S.-citizen children have lived in public housing for more than 20 years.
“I don’t know where I could go,” she says. “I don’t know of any place I could get. I’ve never been homeless. But, yes, I could end up on the streets. The rents are really expensive, and I don’t have any way of getting any more money. I want to work, I badly want to work, but you need a Social Security number and papers – and I don’t have them.”
Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and book author. In January, he wrote the Equal Voice article, “Portraits of Muslim Families Show the Real America.” Some names in this story have been changed or partially included to protect their identity. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted content – articles, photos and videos – created specifically for Equal Voice can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included. Photography from The Associated Press is copyright protected.