CHARLOTTE — It was clear that Liza Jackson’s luck had changed when she drove her pearl-white Dodge sedan, the one with the huge pink plastic eyelashes over the headlights, into Pinebrook, an eight-year-old subdivision where residents tend to notice cars with huge pink eyelashes.
“There goes the neighborhood,” one homeowner said when she heard that her potential new neighbor had a federal housing voucher known as a Section 8.
But Jackson could well be Pinebrook’s salvation, a means by which landlords can rent an empty, crime-magnet of a house to a tenant with a steady, government-backed check.
From Jackson’s point of view, the dismal housing market appeared as a glorious reversal of fortune: Fresh swaths of suburbia were opening up to the very people it has so often excluded.
She had seen one house, and now she rolled up to another, a tan three-bedroom with red shutters. She got out and looked around, a vaguely glamorous vision crossing the grass in a long, leopard-print dress. She peeked into the windows, making out what appeared to be vaulted ceilings.
“Dang,” Jackson said approvingly.
She put the house, a foreclosure turned rental, on her list of possibilities.
The reasons for this irony are mostly familiar. A steadily dropping homeownership rate, 5 million to 11 million more foreclosures in the pipeline, and a raft of investors buying them up have led to a proliferation of rentals in the land of lawns and cul-de-sacs.
But as housing prices keep slipping and the economy remains shaky, there’s been another shift as more landlords view the approximately 2 million American families with a Section 8 voucher — which essentially subsidizes fair-market rent for people who can’t afford it — as among the best ways to fill an empty house.
“It’s guaranteed money,” said David Benham, who owns several rental properties and is a founder of the Benham REO Group, which sells bank foreclosures to investors in 35 states. “It has a great accountability program with the renters. I love Section 8. I wish every one of my properties was Section 8.”
So for a group of Americans previously blocked from certain neighborhoods by “not in my back yard” politics, high prices and a lack of rental options, this is a minor bonanza. Those with a Section 8 voucher, a key federal program for the poor, are a fraction of those who need it; waiting lists are full and years long. But they are a lucky fraction. In the recession-era economy, the voucher is becoming a golden ticket to almost anywhere, a point hardly lost on Liza Jackson, whose cellphone was now ringing Lil Wayne.
“Yes?” she said, answering in the prim manner she described as her “white voice.” “I had called about the four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath? Yes. Liza. Like Minnelli.”
Jackson and her daughter Sheena, 24, were saying goodbye to a cramped two-bedroom townhouse in Honolulu, a city she described as “not all it’s cracked up to be, if you’re black,” and “all high maka maka,” which is Hawaiian slang for unduly expensive.
Jackson had planned the move for months, perusing rentals on Section 8 Web sites that offer everything from chic new condominiums in Miami to four-bedrooms in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Atlanta. Jackson decided on Charlotte, where she could get more square footage for her family, which included Sheena, Sheena’s 5-year-old son, Shamahrie, and her two dogs, Coco Chanel and Mamacita. She saved up from her job as a baker, shipped the car and booked a room at a cheap hotel off the Billy Graham Parkway.
Now it was early June, and she and Sheena were at a briefing at the Charlotte Housing Authority office, a normally dreary place that was bustling like a booming real estate firm.
By 8 a.m., more than two dozen hopeful people were streaming in, having taken overnight buses from New York, Baltimore, New Jersey and elsewhere, where they lived in public housing, or run-down neighborhoods, or places they hoped to escape.
“I want to be around all this fresh air,” said Evelyn Lifsey, who was moving from a Staten Island public housing project. “My moving truck is on standby.”
A housing counselor ended the briefing by handing out a list of Zip codes.
“These are areas with better amenities, more jobs, better schools,” she said, encouraging people to scout them.
Jackson received a folder with her voucher, a prized possession that people spend years on waiting lists to acquire. Jackson’s was $1,032, possibly more if utilities were included or if she found a place in a pricier Zip code. Her contribution was about $200 a month.
She looked over the list of houses she’d compiled: a few older homes and others in subdivisions such as Linda Vista, Running Deer and Pinebrook, a tidy if slightly fraying neighborhood where some homes once sold for $180,000.
“I don’t want to live in some ghetto,” Jackson said in the brawny tone of her native Boston, and it seemed she would not have to. Soon, she and Sheena were zipping down Interstate 85.
It was a sunny afternoon in Charlotte, an ambitious city of mirrored skyscrapers and green suburbs whose last big wave of house hunters was full of bank employees, high-tech workers and other professionals.
Now there was Jackson, who receives unemployment, and Sheena, who gets child support for Shamahrie. Riding along, they fielded calls from agents, some of whom seemed quite eager.
“Yes, hello, Debbie!” Jackson said into her phone.
“Yes, I did receive my voucher,” she said to another agent.
“Yes, I did get my voucher,” she said to another.
Their list of possibilities was growing.
“Just look at all these trees!” Sheena said as they sailed past a blur of highway forest.
“Here you can just drive and drive,” Jackson mused, imagining a better life.
If she was cramped in Honolulu, here she had higher standards. At least three bedrooms. Hardwood floors, preferably. An open kitchen.
They wound their way to the first address, which turned out to be the sort of Section 8 offering typical of the boom years: a small, 1970s-era brick number with dirt patches in the front yard.
“I’ll put ‘[Heck] no’ next to this one,” Jackson said, making a note.
She hit the gas, passing two young men in shorts and tank tops.
“Uh-oh, street punks,” Jackson said, further disqualifying the area.
She steered back onto the interstate, and after a while exited onto Sunset Road, a winding, semi-rural stretch with a run of white split-rail fencing.
“Oooh,” Sheena said, impressed.
They passed a couple of young men in shorts and T-shirts walking along the road.
“Uh-oh, street punks?” Jackson said, unsure which class distinction applied.
“Nah, they look like some going-to-school street punks,” said her daughter, who claimed a finer social radar.
They pulled into Linda Vista, a winding maze of 2,000-plus-square-foot homes.
“This is quiet livin’,” Jackson said, rolling along. “I’d hate to see something ghetto in here.”
Most yards were well kept, though a few were weedy, and here and there, vinyl siding was curling off houses. There was a Mercedes-Benz in one driveway, and old trucks and minivans in others. There were some vacant homes.
They pulled up to one, a gray three-bedroom with a white picket fence. They walked around the house, gold sandals in the clipped grass, and looked through the windows. Sheena was sure neighbors were staring.
Jackson knew that despite stereotypes people might have of Section 8 tenants, she would be an ideal neighbor for these economic times. She had cleared up her credit. She had savings, enough to pay her share of the rent in advance. She was upstanding, planning to attend school to become certified to draw blood. And once she moved, she would stay.
She was what Linda Vista needed, she realized: stability.
If Jackson decided to apply for it, she would contact the owner, Sabre Value Asset Management. The house, which the firm bought in a short sale for $90,000 last year, is one of about 150 it has acquired across Charlotte and Atlanta. All are rentals.
“Our goal is to try to provide a win for everybody,” said the firm’s president, Aaron Edelheit, describing the enterprise as a stabilizing force.
Jackson’s possible Linda Vista neighbors were warming up to that idea.
“I have nothing against Section 8,” said Cassandra Coleman, a homeowner. “Rich, poor, anyone can be a good or bad neighbor.”
She had been laid off from Bank of America for three years. Her mortgage was in trouble. She spoke with the sense that she could probably use a voucher herself.
Jackson realized that her own good fortune was partly due to such misery, but mostly, she and Sheena were thinking about a huge walk-in closet they’d seen.
“You know how many shoes you can put in there?” Sheena said. “I’m trippin’.”
After several days of looking, Jackson had seen at least a dozen houses that were supposed to represent the rewards of middle-class betterment but that were beginning to strike her as a bit shabby or “peasy.”
She did not want some of the peasy carpet she’d seen, or peasy refrigerators or dented, peasy front doors.
She drove again along Sunset Road, which she had decided was not peasy, at least not yet.
She drove by Elizabeth Oaks, one of the newest and most upscale subdivisions, where the builder had recently pulled out. The model home was now a rental.
She drove into Pinebrook, where one resident had dreaded the notion that a Section 8 tenant might move in. Others took a more practical view.
“If you don’t let go of your hang-ups, you’re going to be stuck with an empty house,” said Crystal Campbell, a homeowner who got laid off from Bank of America and recently found a job in the corporate offices of the Family Dollar discount chain.
By now, Campbell had accepted the revised facts of her existence. She could not move because her home’s value had dropped by half. Section 8 renters were not the enemy of Pinebrook but the friend. The house next door needed a tenant.
But Jackson was ever more discerning, and she wasn’t sure about Pinebrook. There were other places to consider. She had so many choices, including a renovated 2,500-square-foot “gem!” beyond I-485. With her Section 8 voucher in hand, she got in the sedan with the pink plastic eyelashes and headed there next.