Impossible Minimum Income Requirements Prevent Voucher Holders from Finding Housing

Minimum income requirements set by housing providers to screen out housing voucher holders are illegal source of income discrimination.

By Aastha Uprety
July 18, 2019

Many housing providers use minimum income requirements as part of their application screening process for tenants. Generally, the purpose of minimum income requirements is to determine whether an applicant likely has enough income to cover the cost of rent. However, some housing providers in Washington, D.C. are using minimum income requirements as a tool to screen out potential applicants with housing vouchers.

Last year, a local resident with a Housing Choice Voucher, Jane Doe, reached out to the ERC because she was facing difficulty in her housing search. After finding a property that she was interested in, Jane reached out to the housing provider and let them know she would be paying her rent using a voucher. The housing provider told her that there was a minimum income requirement of $120,000 to be approved for the property. Jane was devastated – her income did not qualify. It was why she used a voucher in the first place.

The ERC contacted the landlord on Jane’s behalf, explaining that their minimum income requirement was likely illegal discrimination based on source of income. After ERC staff engaged in months of advocacy with the landlord to address their discriminatory application requirements, the landlord removed the property from the market so that Jane couldn’t rent the unit. In response, the ERC assisted Jane with filing a fair housing complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights. Eventually, the ERC successfully negotiated a settlement agreement with the housing provider, in which Jane received several thousand dollars in compensation.

The landlord committed discrimination by requiring a minimum income of $120,000, which prevented voucher holders from applying to their property. So how should landlords go about applying minimum income requirements to applicants with vouchers?

Applying minimum income requirements to housing voucher holders 

In Washington, D.C., it is illegal to discriminate in housing on the basis of source of income. This means that housing providers cannot deny somebody who pays for their rent with the use of a housing voucher, rental subsidy, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), veteran’s benefits, or other legal sources of income. Despite this law, landlords still frequently discriminate against housing voucher and subsidy holders. Sometimes, landlords outright refuse to accept vouchers or subsidies, such as Housing Choice Vouchers and rapid re-housing vouchers. Sometimes, however, discrimination is more subtle—including setting minimum income requirements that are incorrectly calculated for voucher holders.

A housing voucher or subsidy allows an individual or family with low income to obtain housing in the private market by subsidizing their rent. Vouchers usually cover a portion of the rent with the voucher holder paying the remaining amount; however, in some cases a voucher will cover the entirety of the voucher holder’s rent. The voucher payment comes from the local Housing Authority, other government agency, or a nonprofit organization, and the tenant’s payment comes from their own income or savings.

Minimum income requirements for rental properties are common, but often incorrectly applied for voucher holders. Landlords often require that applicants make three or four times the amount of monthly rent. For an applicant using a voucher, this requirement may only apply to their portion of the rent. The requirement must take into account whether someone has a housing voucher or rental subsidy and, if so, exclude the rent payment covered by the voucher. In the situation the ERC helped resolve, the landlord failed to do just that.

For example, if a unit’s total monthly rent is $2,000 and the tenant is responsible for paying $200, the housing voucher covers the remaining balance: $1,800. Therefore, a legal income requirement would be three times the tenant’s portion of the rent, $200 x 3, which is $600 per month or $7,200 per year. The landlord may only require that the tenant make $600 per month. If the landlord were to instead say that the applicant’s income must be three times the total monthly rent, or $6,000 per month, that would be discriminatory and likely illegal. This is because such an income requirement would likely disqualify many, if not all, voucher holders from applying, since individuals only qualify for vouchers if they make under a certain income amount. See the ERC’s fact sheet on source of income discrimination for more information.

income requirement calculation

Source of income discrimination has significant consequences for voucher holders, making it extremely difficult for them to find a safe and secure place to live. Whether a landlord is intentionally trying to avoid renting to voucher holders or genuinely unaware of how to calculate a legal income requirement for a voucher holder, the impact of illegal minimum income requirements is that voucher holders face even further obstacles to finding housing.

The ERC recently released an online learning course about D.C. Fair Housing Laws for Housing Providers. Whether a housing provider has been operating in Washington, D.C. for 1 year or 20 years, or is a landlord for only a few houses or a large apartment complex, it is crucial to stay-up-to-date on the many unique local protections and laws in the District. This interactive course reviews protected classes like source of income and status as a victim of an intra-family offense under the D.C. Human Rights Act, details about how local occupancy codes intersect with fair housing requirements, requirements for criminal records screening, and best practices for complying with them all.

If you believe you may have experienced discrimination in housing, you can contact the Equal Rights Center. To report your experience, please call 202-234-3062 or email info@equalrightscenter.org.

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