Tenants With Section 8 Face Widespread Housing Discrimination

Unless you’ve relied on housing choice vouchers — also known as ”Section 8″ — at some point in your life, you likely don’t think about housing subsidies very often. This federal program, which serves over two million people annually, can be life-changing for participants — but as with other government benefits, it can also come with a burden of stigma and discrimination.

A recent study by the Urban Institute examined how prospective landlords interact with tenants who use vouchers — and their findings were pretty depressing: Up to 78 percent of landlords in some places refused to rent to tenants using vouchers.

These vouchers provide assistance with the cost of renting — and, in some cases, buying — a home. They go directly to the landlord. In instances where the vouchers don’t cover the entire cost of rent, tenants must make up the difference. People who use vouchers are exactly like other tenants, but some of their rent comes from the government — that’s it!

To qualify, people must make less than 50 percent of median income and go through an application process that includes extensive documentation. Then they’re placed on a waiting list for vouchers — and it can take years for their names to be called. The process of applying for and getting vouchers, in other words, isn’t easy. Having one in hand is no guarantee that you’ll find a rental, either.

You may have seen “No Section 8” on “for rent” signs and apartment ads — and in many places, that’s entirely legal. That’s the problem, argue the researchers: When landlords don’t face any penalties for declining vouchers, they feel free to reject perfectly good tenants.

That changes radically in areas where this kind of discrimination is prohibited. In Washington, D.C., for example, just 15 percent of voucher-using tenants were turned down.

Why are so many landlords anti-vouchers?

Well, that’s where the stigma comes in. Many people associate housing choice vouchers with poverty, and they assume that low-income people don’t make good tenants. They may think these renters are more likely to “trash” a house, be unable to take care of it or have dirty or disruptive habits. These attitudes are not based in fact, of course, but it makes it hard for these tenants to get in the door. Landlords may also believe that the tenants’ share of the rent will be late.

As a result, people who use vouchers often end up in economically depressed, racially segregated neighborhoods.

To address this issue, some regions have passed bans on housing voucher discrimination. They do not require landlords to rent to tenants using vouchers, but vouchers alone cannot be used as a reason to deny tenancy. They may also stipulate that landlords cannot raise the rent above the rate charged for comparable housing.

In other words, if you rent a two-bedroom apartment for $1,500, you cannot charge a voucher-using tenant $1,800 to take advantage of the combined purchasing power of the voucher and the tenant’s own income.

Some landlords complain about and successfully overturn such laws, but they’re making steady progress across cities like Chicago, Newark, Washington, D.C. and other U.S. cities — along with several states.

Is an anti-discrimination law necessary?

Voucher holders aren’t automatically protected from discrimination simply because they have vouchers, which is why explicit laws are needed, advocates argue. The researchers also noted that systems of inequality in the United States make it such that many people with vouchers are also members of legally protected classes: They are women, people of color and disabled people, due to higher poverty rates in all of these populations. Discriminating against them because they have vouchers can exacerbate social inequality.

The researchers concluded that protective laws would help reduce discrimination, as would landlord outreach and education — especially in moderate and high-income neighborhoods — to reduce housing segregation and open up more housing units.

Vouchers are, of course, not the only way to improve access to housing. Rent control can protect tenants who want to stay in their homes, while building public housing can increase the number of available housing units and lower overall costs.

In some parts of the country, activists known as “YIMBYs” are pushing for more widespread public and private development, especially around transit hubs in the suburbs. They argue that this can reduce displacement and gentrification by preserving historic communities while still providing housing for newcomers.

Photo credit: Michael Fleshman/Creative Common

27 comments

Lisa M
Lisa M5 months ago

Noted.

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Lisa M
Lisa M5 months ago

Noted.

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Past Member
Past Member 5 months ago

Jenn....your concept of not charging extra for extra individuals living in a home or apartment etc is no reasonable. Additional people in a home create extra wear and tear and "normal" damage that someone...in Section 8 cases neither the tenant or the government...pays for. More wear on carpets. More wear on plumbing. More wear on appliances. Who should pay for this?

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Past Member
Past Member 5 months ago

As a former successful landloard, I have a few comments I would like to share with s.e.smith on the article "Tenants with Section 8 Face Housing Discrimination"

I was a middle-income/working class landlord for many years. I rarely had issues with tentants where many friends, including some who accepted Section 8 because is was a "guaranteed rent coming in monthly" DID have ongoing problems.

As I see it there is one overriding problem with Section 8 ...there is no damage deposit on the unit or home.

I was the kind of landlord who told my tenants the following:
If your plumbing goes out the same day as mine, yours gets fixed first because you are paying me for that right.
I would also tell them to save their money and that this should be the last place they rent as they are purchasing my future and should be buying their own.
I also would give back 100% of deposits if the home was left clean, with carpets cleaned and floors washed, bathrooms and refrigerators scrubbed etc. in ready to move in condition minus "normal wear and tear"....

It was a rare situation that my tenants did not get back 100% of the deposit. And when that would happen, it invariably cost me far more to clean the place up than the deposit....but in over a decade that happened twice...and once I was able to sue to get the funds refunded.

You cannot do that with Section 8...you cannot go after the tenant OR sue the governmental agency.

So, if you cannot get a damage dep

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heather g
heather g5 months ago

Thank heavens I live in Canada.

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Karen B
Karen B5 months ago

How sad...

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Alea C
Alea C5 months ago

Tyfs.

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Anne M
Anne M5 months ago

Why not give these people a chance ?? - Many poor people appreciate a new home, and they keep it clean, and make it nice and comfy... - Everybody is ''different''...

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Heather B
Heather B5 months ago

I know landlords that preferred section 8. It can be a hassle getting the property qualified but it insures at least some payment. Tht being said rents, especiallly in jurban areas, are ridiculously high and sadly bad tenants can be notorioussly hard to get rid of. Section 8 eviction proceedings are considered more difficult than regular ones. As in everything else balance is crucial with understasnding and enforcement of protections, rights and responsibilities of both the landlord and the tennant.

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Jenn C
Jenn C5 months ago

The program has some definite drawbacks. Some fixes I would propose are, first of all, increase the funding. 80% of rents in any given area are above what the Section 8 threshold is. The program's aim to have poor people access safe and secure housing will not meet its goals if these people can't access the majority of housing that fits that criteria. Next, each state legislature must pass a rule that no person or company can rent out residential units without accepting vouchers. Third, and more generically, state legislatures must pass a law that landlords cannot discriminate or charge extra for normal, legal household complements. That means no exclusions or fees for 'extra' people (bedrooms can typically hold 2 people each, not just 1), pets, smoking, A/C window units, etc.

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