Study Examines “Man in the House” Rules in the Voucher Program

A new article by Rahim Kurwa, “The New Man in the House Rules: How the Regulation of Housing Vouchers Turns Personal Bonds into Eviction Liabilities,” explores the impacts on families of regulations in the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program. The article, published in Housing Policy Debate, finds rules in the HCV program resemble past and present punitive regulations in other housing and safety net programs. Such regulations can create dilemmas for recipients in which they must choose between housing security and family.

A long and paternalistic history of punitive regulations has dogged social welfare policy. A classic example of this is the “man in the house” rule enforced throughout the 1960s for welfare recipients, including those in public housing. “Man in the house” rules sought to enforce social norms about who was morally deserving of welfare. Specifically, the rules prevented adult males from residing with mothers and children who received assistance. The rules sought to ensure only women with children, who at the time were expected not to work, benefitted from welfare. Households with an adult male were viewed as undeserving of assistance because adult males were expected to provide for their families through work. “Man in the house” rules, enforced through highly invasive inspections, forced many families to choose between maintaining welfare supports and keeping their families intact. Kurwa’s article extends historical analysis of such punitive regulations into the present by examining policies in the HCV program.

Kurwa’s analysis draws on qualitative interviews with 39 Black voucher holders over a five-year period in Antelope Valley, a suburb in Los Angeles County. The interviews documented the experiences of voucher tenants and how program rules impacted their personal, family, and social lives. Three-fourths of interviewees were women, and over four-fifths were Black.

Nine of the interviewees provided in-depth information about the experience of having their personal lives surveilled or policed because of two specific HCV rules implemented by the Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles (HACOLA). The first rule stipulated that tenants must report all changes in family composition to HACOLA and unauthorized tenants were not permitted to reside in the unit. The second forbade crime or drug-related activity in or around the unit, including the activity of guests. Failure to comply with either rule could result in eviction. Compliance with policies was monitored by the police and HACOLA through extensive policing and surveillance of voucher recipients. Interviewees revealed feeling highly scrutinized in their personal lives by the police and HACOLA, as well as minimizing their family and social relations for fear of eviction. Some interviewees contemplated leaving the program to escape the distress caused by surveillance.

Kurwa concludes that voucher regulations like crime- and drug-free policies and bans on unauthorized residents can incentivize tenants to cut ties with family. In effect, these policies are a modern parallel of 1960s “man in the house” rules in that they represent an intrusion of the state into deeply personal family matters and create dilemmas in which tenants must choose between housing support and family ties. The author suggests the need for greater attention to how housing rules can be implemented in highly punitive ways that negatively impact family well-being. 

The New Man in the House Rules: How the Regulation of Housing Vouchers Turns Personal Bonds Into Eviction Liabilities is at: