Free Freedia! or, Housing in America is a Racist Disaster

Updated March 15, 2016 11:35am PDT
Big Freedia Photos 1000X667

On this Wednesday, March 16th, Big Freedia will be tried for theft of government funds, a felony, for supposedly receiving Section 8 vouchers when she was not in financial need of them. 

She is being represented by her attorney Tim Kappel, who said she was first contacted by investigators in late November. She offered to take part in a pre-trial diversion program, but prosecutors opted to charge her with a felony instead.

Big Freedia herself has taken responsibility for receiving the vouchers beyond the point that she technically needed them:

“I quickly found myself in a new economic structure and, frankly, knew little about how to handle my money. It wasn’t until recently (after I had stopped receiving housing vouchers) that it became very clear I had received assistance to which I wasn’t entitled. It was an oversight — but one that I take full responsibility for.”

As someone who has received government financial and at times housing assistance for a large portion of my life due to coming from a low income family, being disabled, and needing to be on Medicaid to access necessary medical services since birth, I can completely understand making an oversight on something like this—it does sound like an honest mistake to me, particularly since Freedia is willing to own the fact that she didn't understand the system or the protocol required to report her changes in income. 

It also should be noted that for a lot of people who have been poor/working class for most of their lives, it's hard to trust changes in economic status. It's hard to know if one's success, especially as a performing artist, and a black, genderflux performing artist from New Orleans, is going to stick. 

Not only is she being asked to pay back money she owes to the government, about $34,000 which came in the form of rent covered (which she has, I must stress, already begun the process of paying back), but she is also facing up to ten years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines (according to the office of U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite) for not being system-literate, which I'm telling you, most of us are not. 

I thought I'd clear some things up about government assistance and just who is stealing it.

Big Freedia had qualified years ago for housing vouchers on the federal level. Section 8, or the Housing Choice Voucher program, allows low-income, disabled, and/or elderly individuals and families to choose a rental unit, and enter into an arrangement with the landlord and their local public housing agency (PHA) in which the PHA will pay the landlord the tenants' rent with funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Waitlists for Section 8 are often very long, and some close for long periods of time. 

The situation with housing in New Orleans is pretty dire, specifically for the poorest residents, a high percentage of whom are black and have been living in New Orleans for generations. HANO (Housing Authority New Orleans) opened up their waitlist for the first time since 2009—for the past seven years, no one could apply. 

Currently, there are 6,000 people on the waitlist. 

People sometimes even opt to move out of their own state if their name comes up on another state's housing list, where they then must agree to live for a year before moving home with the vouchers.

According to the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center:

“Part of the problem is that nearly 50 percent of New Orleans' rental units were destroyed after the storm, limiting choice and availability, according to the report. Rents increased dramatically at the same time, making it more difficult for Section 8 residents to find homes that were affordable under the rules of the program. "

"Another problem is that 82 percent of landlords in New Orleans refused to accept vouchers or placed unreasonable requirements on the tenants."

A 2009 Report.

As if this were not enough to hurt those already most negatively impacted by the storm, New Orleans took Katrina as an opportunity to destroy nearly every public housing project. This worked well for major developers like Pres Kabacoff, who owns HRI Properties, a development company which focuses on “inner-city revitalization”. 

In an interview with gentrification scholar Peter Moskowitz at Gawker just a year ago, Kabacoff openly expresses his intentions and reasoning behind the tight ship of displacement and gentrification that he steers. Despite the fact that information and regulations aimed at protecting applicants and recipients of housing vouchers are vague at best and full of loopholes at worst, there are laws surrounding affordable housing which are clear in how they can benefit landlords and developers. Kabacoff told Gawker:

“We are now a mission-driven neighborhood revitalizer. We use housing, hotels, mixed-income developments as "widgets" to make revitalization happen. That grew into taking advantage of Hope VI, which was the federal program to really decapitate public housing by privatizing it and mixing incomes 

[Hope VI was started under the Clinton Administration. It gives cities money to give tax breaks to developers for affordable housing in mixed-use communities, as opposed to building blocks of traditional public housing]. 

We like it because it was a neighborhood revitalizer—it fit our mission perfectly.”

If Kabacoff's use of the term “decapitate” to describe a government incentive which he feels warm and fuzzy about doesn't terrify you, perhaps the fact that he was able to influence the federal government to increase percentage of median household income a family has to be making in order to qualify for affordable housing from 60% to 120%. 

Which means: middle class qualifies as in need of affordable housing. 

This highlights not only the competitive and cross class-shaming nature of government assistance programs amongst the very poor, but also how gentrification and increased development will cause families with more and more money to seek affordable housing. 

All the while, developers and building owners seek to benefit from tax breaks and federal grants for supposedly supplying affordable housing to those in need, while pushing out those who literally can't compete with market rate, or with the newly racist and classist aesthetic lines drawn through the places they used to call home. 

Kabacoff describes the wealthiest third of the affordable housing sector to be “the kind of people you would love to have as your neighbor.” 

The other two-thirds he could do without.

“If there's crime that follows, the market rate gets nervous, votes with their feet and leaves, then it doesn't work. So what do you do with the third that's too difficult? You just don't take them, or you evict them. Just get them out of there. I don't have the staff to deal with them...

But the cold truth is, if you're going to revitalize a neighborhood that's in bad shape or where market rate won't go—because the amount of crime, the amount of poverty or the amount of minorities, or whatever keeps market rate uncomfortable moving there—one of the realities is that when the market rate come in, those people move to another neighborhood. It's a pain in the ass, but they move.”

If you have never had to access social services or government assistance you might not know this: while the system and the educational, attitudinal, and societal structures surrounding it offer many avenues and opportunities for one to experience internalized racism, ableism, and to poor-shame yourself, there are very little practical structures in place to show you how to be your own best advocate or social worker.

These educational models for financial literacy and government assistance system literacy are barely available or consistent if you ask for them, let alone if you have no idea where to look. Qualifying for some government assistance programs are mutually exclusive from some others. Good luck figuring out what is what. 

Interacting with unfriendly case managers and agents (who are not being paid enough for their job) only adds to the level of shame, confusion, potential humiliation and discouragement one might feel. 

Housing inspections truly suck, and I have found, when going to the Social Security Administration, that different SSI specialists will disagree about not only what the protocols are for accessing services, but also what the protocols are for reporting wages from a new job, accounting for a change in family size, etc. 

Applications, reapplications, and appeals of decisions often involve tens of pages of paperwork which you better make damn sure you've made copies of after you've completed them all by hand (if you or anyone in your life could understand what they were asking of you) because whatever office you're sending them to might lose them and blame you.

Financial security is never so secure as it seems, especially if it's a new and unexpected change in your life. Especially if an increase in income has the high likelihood of being temporary. 

Let's say you get a new job, or suddenly get discovered and gain in popularity in your career of choice, but then some incident of identity-based discrimination causes you to lose your job, or something about your new responsibilities and schedule becomes inaccessible and unsustainable to you in an unforeseen way (perhaps related to your disability/chronic illness, a new disability or illness)?

What if you didn't report a change in your income because you didn't know how to, were afraid you would lose all support, or simply missed the window in which to report because the avenues for reporting were inaccessible to you (you don't have an Iphone, the phone system robot cannot understand your name as a real name because it is racist, and you cannot get a ride from your house to the office), and now you are being asked to pay back money which you no longer have? 

Vouchers are a vital lifeline for struggling artists and other gig-to-gig workers whose income is inconsistent by nature. 

New Orleans right now is in the middle of a terrible housing crisis. The cost of living is steadily increasing despite stagnating incomes—since 2000, rents have risen 40%, while incomes have only risen 2%. 61% of renters in the city pay more than the recommended 30% of their income in rent and a shocking 36% pay more than 50% of their income in rent. Housing advocates estimate that the city needs 33,000 units of affordable housing to address this ever-growing problem. 

Housing market analysts say that New Orleans is out of "naturally occurring" affordable housing now.

Breonne DeDecker, Program Manager with Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative

In short, with vouchers basically being non-existent and the housing market of New Orleans being a veritable crisis, it makes complete sense that anyone who has a voucher would hold on to it.

I don't mean to imply that Big Freedia held onto any benefits when she was not “entitled” to them intentionally, especially when she is saying publicly that this was an unfortunate oversight on her part and an honest mistake. 

Freedia is not alone in advocating, even lightly, that counseling and literacy programs for those transitioning out of public housing into Section 8, or out of need-based aid altogether would greatly benefit many. 

On top of this, government assistance programs which predominantly aid the developers who exploit circumstances like natural disasters and environmental and economic racism are broken, and maybe always have been. 

A system of shame and inconsistent, incohesive guidelines can and will not "empower" people to be more "self-sufficient"; it forces people into the beauracratic inbetweens to maintain resources they need to survive, which our society very conveniently identifies as "theft".

As a black disabled working-poor raised, currently working artist who has received housing assistance and who has made mistakes when reporting income, I say #FreeFreedia of all charges. 

To punish Big Freedia so extremely for receiving housing vouchers beyond when she qualified for them does not benefit anyone in need of housing in any way, and it would further reinforce the racist precedent that America believes black people, no matter how talented, are bodies for prisons, not houses.

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Lyric Seal aka Neve Be(ast) is a mixed black, queer, multigender, disabled, porn performing, performance art wreaking femme anarchist with a vengeance. They are a staff writer at HARLOT covering all topics which can vaguely be related to performing arts, love, sex/work, disability justice, policy, and the lush insides of their mind. Neve also has a column in maximumrocknroll called "Totally Lame." They are a contributor to Everyday Feminism and various literary magazines. You can book them to dance, talk, teach, and make you feel good about yourself.