What if Section 8 housing voucher recipients were given $15 million vouchers, good for use in Malibu or Beverly Hills? The only question would be whether it would take a full five seconds for elite support for this federal housing program—which provides welfare families with a monthly rental check to move from ghettos to more stable working-class neighborhoods—to evaporate.
The gorgeous sea-and-mountain community of Topanga Canyon, just south of Malibu, may have gotten a little taste of what such an experiment in serious social engineering might look like. In 2000, Los Angeles paid $15 million to Javier Francisco Ovando, a Honduran illegal immigrant and member of the 18th Street gang, in compensation for his victimization at the hands of two corrupt Los Angeles police officers four years earlier. The Ovando case was at the heart of the Rampart scandal, in which a cadre of gang cops from the LAPD’s Rampart Division abused, stole from, and framed drug dealers. Two of those officers shot the unarmed Ovando during a drug investigation, paralyzing him. They then planted a gun on him and persuaded a court that he had fired his gun first, resulting in Ovando’s imprisonment for two and a half years until the truth came to light.
In 2001, Ovando used his settlement money to buy a 6,000-square foot, $2.2 million house in Topanga Canyon. He also financed his drug habit, pleading guilty that year to transporting 50 grams of cocaine, 37 grams of marijuana, and an illegal gun in his Cadillac SUV after being stopped for speeding on his way to Las Vegas. The public record goes silent on his subsequent doings until this week, when the Los Angeles Times reported two recent arrests. On June 22, Ovando was arrested for criminally threatening the buyers of his Topanga Canyon mansion, who had been allowed to move in during escrow while liens on the house were resolved—apparently, $15 million was not enough to keep Ovando out of debt. Then, this past Sunday, he was arrested again for an hour-long, high-speed police chase in his Hummer through San Fernando Valley streets and freeways.
Perhaps Ovando has otherwise been a model resident of his mountain refuge: quiet, careful not to disturb his neighbors, helpful with community needs, and so on. But it is also possible that he didn’t leave his gang lifestyle behind when he was catapulted up the housing ladder. If this is the case, he would be no different from many other recipients of Section 8 housing vouchers, who have a habit of bringing crime with them when they leave the ghetto for the suburbs on the wings of a federal housing grant. The misguided theory behind the Section 8 program is what might be called morals by osmosis: if you put an underclass family in a working-class neighborhood, the thinking goes, its members will absorb the character traits that have allowed the working class to escape multigenerational poverty and to move into better surroundings. It turns out, however, that the goal of moving up the housing ladder—and the necessity of doing so through one’s own efforts—have a strong effect on character. Accumulating the capital to buy or rent property in a wealthier neighborhood requires a worker to defer gratification and act responsibly. Section 8 housing vouchers short-circuit that character development with a welfare windfall. The program is thus bound to fail all too often in its mission of remoralizing the underclass poor.
To be sure, the prosperous are hardly all paragons of virtue. Ovando’s Hollywood or investment-banker neighbors—and especially their children—may be lawless nightmares on wheels. But on average, the housing ladder does a pretty good job of both incentivizing and sorting for self-control, as the low crime rates in middle-class communities suggest. Hard-working strivers without a huge cushion of security usually take the brunt of the Section 8 consequences, not the elites who self-righteously promulgate such reengineering experiments. Perhaps the federal government could spread the alleged wonders of Section 8 more equitably by providing payouts that would mimic the Ovando effect. Let Hollywood liberals, or even Beltway conservatives with a fondness for Big Ideas, receive the welfare poor in their communities. Then let’s see who supports the idea.