August 22, 2006

A trying life: Section 8 sustains Brooke Dickey and her children

Second in a series.Brooke Dickey’s family: is one of 8,400 in Louisville that relies on Section 8, a federal housing subsidy that began in 1974. Her house is neatly kept and gives lie to the stereotypes that surround Section 8. Photo by Geoff Oliver BugbeeThe facts of Brooke Dickey’s life will likely seem troubling to the average Louisvillian, a person who is fairly hard to identify except to say he or she earns around $30,000 a year and has about a 50-50 shot at owning a home, which is far better than the chances that he or she has a college degree. In these ways and more, Dickey is not average.She’s the mother of four children who go boy-girl-boy-girl commensurate with age: 14, 11, eight, and four. She is 30 years old, and got pregnant for the first time half her life ago, as a sophomore at Waggener High School. She is married to a man named David Dickey, who is not the father of any of her children. They’re in an imposed separation right now because David has been incarcerated in an Eastern Kentucky prison on a drug-related offense (crack). A judge’s ruling in July will allow him to be moved to a halfway house in Louisville. He’s been locked up three of the four years they’ve been married. Dickey’s family is one of the 8,400 in Louisville who rely on Section 8, a federal housing subsidy program started in 1974 that requires recipients to contribute 30 percent of their monthly income to rent, with government paying the rest. There are two basic types of Section 8: project-based, associated with particular developments; and tenant-based, which moves with the recipient. The latter, commonly called housing choice vouchers, are the only ones Louisville offers. According to the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, which issues Section 8 vouchers, there were 10,758 families on the waiting list as of Aug. 1. The Housing Authority has been purging that list since April of last year, its director Tim Barry said, by mailing letters inviting those on the list to a new orientation program. Nearly all have been contacted since; about 35 percent have responded. “We don’t know the last time the list was purged,” Barry said in a phone interview Tuesday. “So there’s obviously some information on there that’s long since outdated. And that’s not unusual.”The average Section 8 recipient in Louisville is a single mother of two who spends 2-1/2 years on the program. Barry said she’s often the victim of domestic abuse who is trying to regain her economic footing.Dickey, who’s been on Section 8 for seven years, is still trying to achieve the financial independence she says she covets. A series of bad decisions left her dependent on the program, and now she worries she can’t get off. Dickey, mother of four children: aged 4 to 14, says she is working hard to achieve the financial independence that will move her beyond the Section 8 program. “You get to a point where — these kids come first. You can’t sit in a dead-end job forever.” Photo by Geoff Oliver BugbeeThe ways that Dickey’s money comes in are scattered. The fathers of  her two older kids pay in total $150 a month in child support. She doesn’t know who the fathers of the younger two are. For 13 years — her entire working life — Dickey has worked at Kmart. They’ve cut her hours of late, basically because the economy has been unkind to Kmart these past few years. She talks about her loyalty to the company, how that should count for something, maybe keep her above 20 hours a week, but Kmart doesn’t care. Why would they? As Dickey says, they’ll hire anybody.Otherwise, we — taxpayers — pay a fairly substantial chunk of her bills. The two kids who still need it go to Community Coordinated Child Care (more commonly known as the 4-Cs), a Metro United Way program for which Dickey pays $27 a week. She gets $197 a month in food stamps, though her food bills are more than twice that. The kids have Medicaid, which is called Passport Health Plan here.The big chunk is Section 8, which pays $499 of her $635 rent every month. She is among the 46 percent of Section 8 voucher-holders in Louisville who pay more than $100 a month out of their own pockets for rent, a sign to Barry and the Housing Authority that the program is functioning properly as a transitional plan for its beneficiaries.But Section 8 also carries a stigma: that recipients are do-nothings with no sense of responsibility, who live like swine among gaggles of shirtless, shoeless offspring. It’s difficult to say precisely what gave rise to the stereotype, other than a broad generalization about public housing that’s transcended over the years to all forms of subsidized living. In fact, there are clear federal and local standards, both for Section 8 holders and the landlords who rent to them. The general condition of the property is regulated and inspected, for instance. A family applying must be income-eligible, meaning their combined income can’t exceed $29,100. They also must be provable U.S. citizens with a clean criminal record.Dickey’s house alone gives lie to the stereotype.It’s a white three-bedroom clapboard house that abuts La Tropicana Latin American Supermarket on Preston Highway, and Dickey keeps the place up to snuff: save a boarded window in the back, everything is clean and orderly. There are framed renderings of roses and lighthouses among a multitude of family photos. Dickey has cable TV and a healthy DVD collection.A devout Baptist who became religious after the birth of her last daughter (also when she had a tubal ligation), Dickey keeps depictions of Jesus around the house, too. She says she wasn’t raised religious — her father left her mother before she was born, though she maintains relationships with both — so it’s sometimes hard to get up Sundays and get to church. Dickey can’t really say why she kept having kids, except that she loves them and that the balance between sex education and peer pressure in school was sadly askew. There are all kinds of academic explanations: broken home, compulsion for attention, tendency for self-punishment, herd mentality. Regardless of how she got here, it’s not much of a stretch to say Section 8 sustains Dickey and her family. Kenny Lanham Jr., a co-owner of Lanham Holdings, is Dickey’s landlord. He’s sympathetic to her situation.“She’s nice,” Lanham says. “She seems to try, and she’s pretty involved in her church. We’ve talked more than just, ‘Hey, how’s it going? Where’s the rent?’”It’s not just landlords who own Section 8 property, however. And in this way, Louisville is somewhat rare.The city was the first to, in the early 1990s, allow those eligible for Section 8 to put their vouchers toward a mortgage payment rather than rent. Cathy Hinko, who worked for the former Jefferson County Housing Authority from 1988-2003 and is now director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, a local advocacy group, was instrumental in creating the program, which now has 81 participants, not one of whom has defaulted on payments. How it works is fairly simple: a financial institution underwrites the mortgages, and those who want it have to be first-time homebuyers, current Section 8 recipients in good standing, be employed continuously for at least one year, have a clean credit history, and go through extensive counseling on home ownership, which includes tips on maintaining a home and avoiding predatory lenders. Additionally, each household had to contribute a minimum of $10 a month to a fund for repairs, which was matched two-to-one by the Housing Authority. After three years, families had a minimum of $1,000 for repairs. All of the houses during this phase of the program were new, Hinko said, to get a true read of how families would deal with home ownership and the maintenance involved.For all its good, though, many are just not interested in home ownership, don’t qualify for the program, or are simply unaware of it. Or, like Dickey, they can’t escape the renting rut. As for the future, Dickey hopes to get off Section 8 before too long. But a new job — not easy to find for someone who’s had the same one her whole working life — must come first.“You can walk into Kmart, Target, Wal-Mart, anywhere and get a job just like that,” she says. “But to get somewhere where you have a 401(k), benefits, you have this, that — it’s hard. I’m not good with change. And I’d just rather stay where I’m comfortable. But you get to a point where — these kids come first. You can’t sit in a dead-end job forever.”  Contact the writer at