Low-income renters face significant discrimination on Craigslist

Low-income families already face an uphill battle in the housing market, but a recent study by a pair of Northeast public policy researchers suggests the hill could be even steeper.

Posted in Urban Affairs Review by Hangen Forestdoctoral student in public policy, and Dan O’Brienassociate professor of public policy, urban affairs and criminology and criminal justice, the study found blatant discrimination on Craigslist against Housing Choice voucher holders.

The housing choice voucher program, often referred to as Section 8 because of the section of the US housing law that authorizes it, is the primary means by which the federal government helps low-income families afford housing in the private market. Currently, approximately 2.1 million households receive vouchers under the program, and more than 80% of these families earn less than $20,000 per year.

Once a family is eligible based on income (it cannot exceed 50% of their county’s median income) and is approved for the program, state entities known as public housing agencies provide families with a voucher that they can use to find accommodation that meets a certain level of health and safety standards.

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But when Hangen started looking into housing discrimination, he found the program wasn’t working the way it should. Hangen combed through more than one million Craiglist rental listings in 77 mid-sized cities across the United States and found “significant amounts” of blatant source of income (SOI) discrimination. Owners would post listings that say bluntly: “We don’t accept Section 8” or “Vouchers shall not apply”.

Although discrimination against holders of Section 8 bonds is well documented, Hangen says the level of discrimination he found on Craigslist was startling.

Some cities like Madison, Wisconsin; El Paso, TX; and Portland, Oregon had almost no express SOI discrimination in their rosters. But the story was different in towns like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Cleveland, Ohio, where discrimination was present in approximately 10% of registrations.

What is even more surprising is that discrimination occurs in some cities that have anti-SOI discrimination laws.

“When these laws are passed, there is often no enforcement mechanism adopted,” Hangen says. “It’s out there, people can take legal action based on this law and you can report it to the local housing authority, but usually there’s no direct enforcement. There may even be no fines associated with it.

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on many factors, including race, gender, religion, national origin, and disability, but not SELF. In recent decades, some states, counties, and cities have begun passing anti-SOI anti-discrimination laws. But the majority still don’t have laws in place, and even some of those who do suffer from SOI discrimination. Five of the 10 cities with the highest levels of SOI discrimination in the study had laws in place that explicitly prohibit it.

For families participating in the voucher program, the consequences of not being able to use their vouchers are potentially disastrous.

“If you can’t find housing during this search period, you risk losing the voucher,” says Bridgett Simmons, a lawyer for the National Housing Law Project. “If you lose the voucher, it means you no longer have the grant. If you no longer have the subsidy, the likelihood that you will be able to find housing after losing it decreases significantly.

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