Susan J. Demas
Marcella Roberson is ready to move. She and her 17-year-old son have been looking for a new apartment for four years because, she says, they’ve suffered domestic violence in their current living situation in Camden, New Jersey.
She hopes her federal housing voucher can bring them a new home and a chance at safety. But landlords have rejected her applications for roughly seven apartments in the past two years.
“I know they don’t want to rent to me. … They see my voucher and don’t care about the situation I’m in or what I can do,” Roberson, who works a few gig economy jobs, said in an interview with Stateline. “[Landlords] see my voucher as a red flag, as a sign that I’m unreliable.”
Roberson’s experience reflects the journey of many recipients of federal housing choice vouchers, known as Section 8 vouchers, because some landlords have concerns about the source of residents’ income.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have passed source of income anti-discrimination laws that aim to protect families who use federal housing assistance programs, according to the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, a national advocacy group. Five others have similar laws that have been weakened by courts or apply in limited situations. These laws form a strong foundation for tenants, experts say, but they can take years to make an impact and often are difficult to enforce.
Nine of the states have enacted their source of income laws since 2018; about 120 municipalities have drafted their own ordinances. Roughly 10 states have considered source of income anti-discrimination legislation this year. The latest statewide action was in Texas, where the Republican-led legislature passed a bill in May banning homeowners associations from discriminating against voucher holders.
In March, Phoenix passed a source of income anti-discrimination ordinance in preparation for the reopening of its voucher housing waiting lists. The move came after a seven-year pause and low response rates from participants, said Teleia Galaviz, a spokesperson for Phoenix’s human services department.
But a lack of awareness by landlords, rental agencies and voucher holders, understaffed housing authorities or ignorance of the law all might inhibit enforcement, said Daniel Teles, a senior research associate at the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute think tank.
Teles co-wrote an Urban Institute report published in October on source of income anti-discrimination laws and their fallout. The report found that the legal protections for voucher holders can take up to five years, on average, to make a significant impact.
“Enforcement agencies would tell you that it takes time for them to prosecute people, bring a case, a lawsuit or something to spur compliance with law, and then you’d see more adherence to it,” Teles said.
Teles said one open question is what other factors contribute to the delay.
“Is it that it takes time for landlords to know that this law exists?” he asked. “Or do [landlords] know it exists, but it takes a lot for some enforcement to happen and scare people into following those laws?”
A few years after a source of income measure is passed, Urban Institute researchers found, households with vouchers tend to move to neighborhoods with lower poverty rates.
In some states, such as Texas, most landlords can reject renters receiving housing vouchers without punishment.
But when a North Texas homeowners association last summer enacted a rule that prohibited renting to Section 8 tenants, it prompted Texas lawmakers to draft and pass legislation preventing such associations, commonly known as HOAs, from doing so.
The new law goes into effect Sept. 1. State Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said the Providence Homeowners Association’s rule veered into racial discrimination, given that most of the area’s Section 8 voucher holders are Black.
When asked how the law will be enforced, Turner told Stateline he hoped to rely on good-faith compliance from homeowners associations.
“I would think that between the office of the attorney general and local district attorneys that there would be an enforcement mechanism, but I don’t anticipate that would be necessary,” said Turner. “This isn’t about trying to put anyone in legal jeopardy. This is simply about saying this is the policy of the state of Texas and this practice is not acceptable.”
Nationwide, there are 2.2 million households that rely on housing choice vouchers as part of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program, also known as Section 8, that was created in the 1970s as an alternative to public housing.
The subsidy under Section 8 allows tenants earning below 50% of an area’s median income to find housing with private landlords. But in many states, landlords don’t have to accept the vouchers. In others, advocates say, a lack of enforcement makes it easy for landlords to decline tenants who use the vouchers.
Roughly 57% of voucher holders are covered by source of income protections, estimates the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.
According to the 2022 Fair Housing Trends Report by the National Fair Housing Alliance advocacy organization, the latest national data on housing discrimination shows that 1,713 source of income discrimination complaints were filed in the United States in 2021, nearly 6% of all complaints and a jump of 350 over the previous year.
There are a few things states and municipalities can do to ensure fair housing practices for voucher recipients. Some opt to do nothing, according to Teles, of the Urban Institute. Twenty-eight states currently don’t have source of income laws.
Those states have choices, Teles said.
“They can pass source of income protection statewide, they can do nothing and let local governments handle it and decide what’s best locally,” Teles said. “Or they can do what some states have done, which is preempt local policy and enshrine in law the ability for landlords to opt out of the [Section 8] program and not offer and not allow and not rent to people with housing choice vouchers.”
The last choice is one being considered in North Carolina. The state House passed a bill with bipartisan support this spring that would prohibit cities and counties from banning source of income discrimination. The bill, which also would protect tenants with disabilities and service animals, remains in a Senate committee.
I know they don’t want to rent to me. … They see my voucher and don’t care about the situation I’m in or what I can do.
– Marcella Roberson
Enforcing the laws
There have been enforcement successes, some advocates say.
Philip Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, says the District of Columbia, for example, has been strong in its enforcement of source of income law.
Washington, D.C., added a source of income protection to its Human Rights Act in 2005, and in October imposed a civil penalty of $10 million against three area real estate firms for refusing to rent to Section 8 voucher holders.
A whistleblower brought the firms’ practices to the attention of then-Attorney General Karl Racine, a Democrat, who sued them in 2020; at least one executive had to forfeit her license for 15 years, and the firms had to cease managing residential properties.
In one email, a company executive noted she wanted to “eliminate the section 8 program from our communities” through tighter application screening.
D.C. officials have been working to educate landlords, Tegeler said, while also filing public lawsuits and randomly auditing properties.
“So that’s what I would call a strong enforcement system,” he said.
The onus to enforce source of income laws rests on the shoulders of a state’s human rights or civil rights commissions, in most cases, according to a review of dozens of state and municipal source of income laws and ordinances compiled and regularly updated by the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.
Officials from the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights — who in June announced enforcement in eight income discrimination cases in the Garden State — say outreach has helped with the reporting of offenses.
The division found probable cause of housing discrimination in four cases where, officials said, landlords told voucher holders they would not accommodate their source of income.
The state imposes housing discrimination penalties of up to $10,000 per violation — and up to $50,000 for multiple offenses within five years — for violating the law.
“Real estate agents must understand what their obligations are when they get a listing for a property rental,” Rosemary DiSavino, the deputy director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, told Stateline. “And we must ensure that the people who are receiving rental assistance and looking for housing understand that they cannot be denied housing because they are the recipient of a housing voucher.”
Chris Martin, policy director for Housing California, an advocacy group, remembers lobbying for the Golden State’s eventual 2019 expansion of source of income protections to include federal vouchers.
But enforcement, Martin said, has been “mixed.”
“Simply saying that you couldn’t discriminate against somebody because they have a housing voucher doesn’t mean they can’t discriminate in other ways,” Martin said. “They look at credit reports or they look at criminal background history and other things, and ways to filter people out, than just the Section 8 aspect of it.”
Fighting a stigma
There are few alternatives to Section 8 housing vouchers that grant low-income renters access to affordable housing opportunities, housing experts say.
The federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit offers developers a tax break to build in what the feds call “difficult development areas,” where land, construction and utility costs outpace the area median income.
But the credit’s benefits have mostly led to more affordable units at higher income ranges, said Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.
“There is just not enough affordable housing for those who need it,” she said.
Data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows a shortage of 7.3 million rental homes deemed affordable and available to renters with extremely low incomes.
The Section 8 program can be a lifeline, but holders still face discrimination.
“I’ve been to open houses, and I may be one of 30 people with a housing voucher,” said Marilyn Hoffman, who has lived the past two years in temporary shelters in Baltimore. “I won’t get the apartment, and maybe some of it is that the landlord doesn’t like vouchers … but there’s also a part of me that thinks that it’s hard for me to compete for housing.”
Alexandra Alvarado, director of education and marketing for the American Apartment Owners Association, an industry group, said one issue landlords traditionally have had with source of income anti-discrimination laws is wanting renters to have a steady income. But the pandemic has changed that, she said; renting to tenants who use government assistance became less risky than renting to people affected by job losses.
“Realistically, a landlord wants to ensure that they will be paid rent on time. And if the tenant suffers a financial hardship, it helps to know that they will have a steady flow of income and will be able to support themselves with an adequate savings safety net,” said Alvarado in an interview with Stateline.
Earlier this year, Arizona Democratic state Rep. Analise Ortiz introduced source of income legislation in a state she describes as “a perfect storm” of housing shortages, high demand and weak tenant protections.
“When we have a shortage of housing and you have people who have been lucky enough to wait in these lines for months and sometimes years to get a housing voucher, they finally find a place and then they’re turned away,” said Ortiz, a former investigative journalist who took office in 2023.
Her bill has been unable to get off the ground in the majority-Republican legislature.
“I would hope that landlords and property managers would come around to realize that the stereotypes that exist around people who use housing vouchers are harmful and untrue, and it is more beneficial in my view to be able to have a reliance on a housing voucher,” Ortiz said.
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