Opinion

Looking Up: Don’t discriminate against rental vouchers

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Looking Up: Don’t discriminate against rental vouchers

Odds are high that at some point in your life someone has helped you out financially. Perhaps you had parents who helped you with a down payment, or with rent during college. Perhaps you had a roommate who let you be late paying a few bills when times go tough. Perhaps your neighbor loaned you a car when yours broke down. Perhaps friends, church members, or the community rallied around you after a fire, an abusive relationship, or a medical crisis. Perhaps you got healthcare and a mortgage guarantee from the VA, or child support from an ex-partner.

If you are in the unusual position of never having even had any help, probably (I hope) you have given some.

Now imagine that because that help you got or gave didn’t come in the form of wages, you weren’t allowed to spend it to get what you needed most.

Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are in that position. They rely on rental assistance of one kind or another, and landlords are legally allowed to refuse to rent to them because of where rent money comes from. You don’t have to look very far to see this in action. Make a quick perusal of Capital Region Craigslist apartment rental ads—you’ll find plenty that specify “No Section 8” (referring to Housing Choice Vouchers, previously and still colloquially known as Section 8 vouchers).

This is often a proxy for discriminating against renters of color or families with children. Both of those categories are protected classes under both federal and state fair housing and human rights laws. But lawful source of income is not—at least not at the federal level or in New York. Other states, including Massachusetts and Washington, do include lawful source of income as protected class, and some municipalities within New York, including Buffalo, Syracuse, and New York City, have passed their own similar laws. But it needs to be statewide.

It especially needs to be statewide because there is often a notable pattern to where source of income discrimination pops up—in wealthier, suburban, whiter areas. Sometimes that bias is even explicit. Kansinya Boone, a case manager and housing counselor at United Tenants of Albany, recently worked with a woman who was struggling to find a landlord who would accept her DSS voucher. One landlord not only told her they didn’t accept vouchers, but once they heard her current address, that they didn’t want anyone from the (poor, largely African-American) neighborhood where she currently lives moving into their neighborhood.

Landlords, along with not understanding how the vouchers work, often don’t realize that most voucher holders are working, says Boone. (This is true. Or they are elderly or disabled. They also don’t bring crime.) Vouchers are “just something that helps them and their families get by until they reach the point where they can sustain themselves and their families going forward,” Boone continues.

Although the whole idea of vouchers was to give people some choice about where they lived, in large part due to discriminatory behavior, research has found that voucher holders remain extremely concentrated and segregated. This lack of flexibility around where to move keeps people impoverished, says Boone. With the number of places that accept vouchers so limited, she encounters many tenants who feel they are stuck in places far from opportunities and in housing in poor repair, too afraid of losing their housing to report code and habitability problems.

Here’s how bad it is: Need for help with housing costs is so high, and the resources so limited, that only 1 in 5 people who qualify for federal rental assistance, like a housing choice voucher, get any help. And yet a substantial portion of that lucky 20 percent end up returning their vouchers because they can’t find anyone who will rent to them before their deadline to use the voucher is up. In a study from 2000, 31 percent of vouchers had to be returned—even though waitlists to get one are years long. In more expensive cities, sometimes fewer than half of voucher holders were successful in finding a home. In Austin, Texas, 91 percent of landlords refused to take vouchers.

We can do better. The Statewide Source of Income Coalition, using the slogan #BanIncomeBiasNY, is supporting Assembly Bill A10077. The bill would add lawful source of income to New York’s human rights statues as a protected class. (Disclosure: My employer, the National Housing Institute, has signed on in support of this coalition.) The coalition was in town on April 24 for a lobby day and rally.

Boone says they first benefit of making source of income a protected class would be an opportunity to educate more people about how housing vouchers actually work, along with the new rules about discrimination. “Everyone needs to be educated—tenants, landlords, service providers, even the police department,” she says. “Everyone would have to be involved in enforcing it.” And then, hopefully, more people could get on with the business of stabilizing their lives and caring for their families.

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