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.
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.
Contrary to previous research, Hangen and O’Brien also found that homeowners in low opportunity neighborhoods where voucher holders are already located, and not those in higher opportunity neighborhoods, are more likely to discriminate. While some landlords in these neighborhoods specialize in renting to Section 8 tenants, others refuse to rent to voucher holders. Hangen and O’Brien suggest this is largely based on negative stereotypes — like that they’re more likely to commit crimes — against Section 8 tenants, but they couldn’t be further from the truth.
“In fact, in many cases they could be the best tenants in the sense that they have been carefully vetted by a housing authority, they have been on waiting lists for years and have had many potential interactions with the housing authorities and their rent is government. assured,” says Hangen. “In many ways, they would be model tenants for some landlords.”
Families participating in the voucher program already have limited housing options. Simmons says SOI discrimination creates monopolies that can be detrimental to voucher holders as tenants.
“It also puts tenants at risk, because if there are only a few landlords in a community that are accepting vouchers, then those tenants are really beholden to those select few landlords who want to participate,” Simmons says. Simmons recalls a case in which the NHLP supported an attorney working to support tenants in a community with a landlord who accepted vouchers.
At the same time that voucher holders face discrimination in low-opportunity neighborhoods, Hangen says they also find it harder to get competitive units in higher-opportunity neighborhoods. Hangen called it a “double squeeze.”
“Not only are they discriminated against if they apply for a place with better opportunities, but they are expressly discriminated against in places where they might already live or concentrate or might be closer to the family or social ties they have. “Hangen said. said.
The study paints a pretty bleak picture of the housing situation for Section 8 tenants, but Hangen says it also provides a potential path forward. As part of the study, Hangen built a tool that easily identifies explicit discrimination in Craigslist listings. For Craigslist, which relies on people to manually flag discriminatory listings, a tool like this, if implemented, would automate moderation.
More importantly, the study highlights that anti-SOI anti-discrimination laws may not be as effective as expected. Hangen says that in addition to increased enforcement, policymakers could use market-driven approaches to motivate landlords to consider voucher holders.
“In order to be able to shift the incentives to voucher holders, there could be ways to make them appear as better tenants to landlords,” Hangen says. “For example, Somerville has a program where they will basically give a cash bonus to landlords who rent to voucher holders.”
Simmons says investing in legal resources for tenants is just as valuable as changing policy, especially in states or communities where anti-SOI anti-discrimination laws don’t exist. Often, local legal aid organizations, which are already overstretched and underfunded, take on this role. But Simmons also encourages tenants seeking legal action to consider pro bono programs, court supports, community activist groups and government housing entities.
“People have to have someone to help them claim their rights,” says Simmons. “So in addition to thinking about how protection is structured, how enforcement is structured, it’s also about community resources and whether the community has enough capacity to support a law. on sources of income.
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