Section 8 Vouchers and the Myth of Ownership

Nothing inherently belongs to anyone. What belongs to who is always a function of policy and the way they construct our economic institutions. Accordingly, all incomes are, at a basic level, politically determined. So, you should not act like some kind of baseline (pre-tax market income for instance) demarcates everyone’s true income, with all other incomes being some kind of government intervention. This is a basic myth of ownership point.

Some people seem to think this is a purely abstract or intellectual point. But the ideology that runs the myth of ownership has real effects in the world. To see this, I have been researching how courts deal with tenants using Section 8 vouchers that bring claims against landlords.

Section 8 vouchers are essentially portable dollar-denominated vouchers (based upon need) that poor families can use towards renting a private apartment. When they execute the voucher, the landlord enters into an agreement with the public housing authority that runs the voucher program. Each month, the public housing authority sends a check along to the landlord.

Under coherent analysis, you would recognize that this Section 8 voucher belongs to the tenant. It is essentially a form of income that they are legally entitled to. It is something they are distributed by our nation’s scarcity allocation system. This should be understood as essentially property of the tenant.

So imagine a Section 8 tenant rents a private apartment. Then the apartment is not properly maintained. Suppose further that under the prevailing housing laws, a tenant would normally be due 50% of their rent in damages. So if the apartment was being rented for $1000, they should be able to recover $500 back due to the condition the apartment fell into. But recall, this is a Section 8 tenant. So in fact, they are paying for the rent (let’s say) with a combination of $100 in cash and $900 in vouchers.

So what is the result if the Section 8 tenant sues? If you recognize the myth of ownership issues, you realize that the voucher amount is clearly an entitlement of the tenant. Our laws have decided to distribute the tenant $900 in housing value as income. So, monetary remedies for a reduction in the value of the housing caused by deteriorating conditions should flow to the tenant. It is the only way to make the tenant whole relative to the distributive share that they were legally entitled to.

However, if your mind is ideologically captured by laissez-faire stupidity, you might reason differently. You might say that in fact the tenant only paid $100 for the apartment. The $900 was paid by the public housing authority (or more obnoxiously “the taxpayer”). So in fact, money damages from the deteriorating apartment (90% of them at least) should go to the government. After all, that voucher was not really the tenant’s money!

It turns out that some judges have actually ruled according to that laissez-faire delusional world. In my research, I pulled up this beautifully illustrative quote from a brief in one of the cases on this topic:

What [the other side] fail[s] to recognize is that the general rule articulated by this Court regarding calculation of damages based on value does not address how such damages should be allocated where, as here, the government, not the tenant, has actually paid the bulk of the contract rent through a public subsidy paid directly to the landlord

Wait, who paid? Was it the government that paid? You’d only think that if you thought the Section 8 recipient was not the real owner of that voucher that they were literally legally entitled to.

The lower court judge in this case seriously denied the Section 8 voucher tenant the money a normal tenant would have gotten for the bad conditions of the apartment. It did so using the myth of ownership silliness expounded in that quote. So ideology does matter.