AllPolitics - TIME This Week

The Suburbs Won't Vouch for This

By Nina Burleigh

[Evans family]

(TIME, May 13) -- When Bob Dole said last week that the government should get out of the housing business and give poor people vouchers instead, you might have thought this idea was on its way to becoming bipartisan reality. After all, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros had already proposed that the nation's 3 million public-housing residents be given vouchers to spend where they please on rent. And how could Dole's fellow free-market Republicans object to housing vouchers--a system that relies on the market, not government, to determine how and where poor people live, a system first instituted by Presidents Nixon and Ford and strongly supported by Reagan?

But Dole's G.O.P. colleagues responded to his proposal with surprise. Despite its being a traditionally Republican solution to public housing, congressional Republicans (including Dole) over the past 18 months have repeatedly voted to shrink the voucher program and refused to pass the Clinton Administration's proposal to convert all federal housing programs into such a system.

What Dole's laudable support for housing vouchers appears to be up against is not philosophical opposition but something more visceral. Displaying symptoms of the NIMBY, or not-in-my-backyard, syndrome, Republicans, including House majority leader Dick Armey, have staunchly opposed voucher programs that might lead poor and disproportionately black public-housing residents to seek housing in the mostly white suburbs. Freshman Congressman Robert Ehrlich Jr., who represents the white, working-class suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, has even introduced legislation to cut off money for voucher programs ordered by a federal judge in his district. "People who have worked their entire lives to buy a home resent government handouts," he says, adding that vouchers "denigrate" property values.

Such comments have led Cisneros to pronounce that the issue of housing vouchers represents "the next great American debate on the subject of race," suggesting that the proposal is objectionable to those who want to keep poor minorities concentrated in the inner cities. Such a notion is hardly news to Maxine Evans, 27, who last year used a HUD voucher to move out of public housing in Robbins, Illinois, to a more spacious private apartment in the racially mixed community of Blue Island. "Some people make it hard," she says. "They think folks that come from the projects don't take care of things. But I'm proud of my place."

--By Nina Burleigh. With reporting by Ann Blackman/Washington and James L. Graff/Chicago

TIME This Week

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