In the District, Source of Income Discrimination is Race Discrimination Too

By Aastha Uprety, ERC Program Assistant, and Kate Scott, Deputy Director

Over 11 thousand households in Washington, D.C. benefit from the Housing Choice Voucher program, a federal government assistance program designed to help low-income families obtain housing in the private market by subsidizing a portion of their rent. However, in many places across the U.S., voucher holders face numerous obstacles while trying to obtain housing, including from landlords who refuse to accept housing vouchers. This is called source of income discrimination, and it is prohibited by the DC Human Rights Act. In many places, including D.C., it is critical to understand that source of income discrimination is tantamount to race discrimination and is a key factor contributing to ongoing racial segregation in our communities.

Last month, the Urban Institute released the results of a study, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), that used matched pair testing to examine discrimination against housing voucher holders in five cities across the United States, including Washington, D.C. In a series of tests, 15 percent of landlords in D.C. denied housing to voucher holders and an additional 14 percent only accepted vouchers with conditions—such as income or work requirements—or were unsure of their policy. Considering the antidiscrimination laws in the District, these numbers should be closer to zero and suggest concerning implications for fair housing. Further, they need to be interpreted within the context of a long, damaging history of race discrimination and segregation in housing.

The Urban Institute study was unable to fully examine the impact of race, but race is a critical variable to consider when examining source of income discrimination, particularly in Washington, D.C. In the study, testers presented as “non-Hispanic white females” to investigate whether landlords would accept housing vouchers. In D.C. especially, this group of testers was not representative of the racial makeup of actual housing voucher holders. The researchers took care to note that the “results do not account for any potential racial bias of landlords talking with prospective tenants. Therefore, D.C.’s overall denial rate could be a conservative estimate.”

Nationwide, 69 percent of housing voucher holders are racial minorities. But in the District, over 90 percent of voucher holders are African American, despite making up only 48 percent of the city’s population. Fifteen percent of all African American renter households in D.C. use vouchers, compared to less than 1 percent of white renter households. These figures are inextricably linked to a long history of housing policies that fostered wealth building for white families in neighborhoods rich with opportunity and often relegated African American families to exploitative, substandard renting conditions in high poverty neighborhoods starved of resources. As a result, it is 71 times more likely that a landlord’s denial of a housing voucher will exclude African American renters than white renters in the District. With this impact as evidence, it’s clear that discrimination against housing voucher holders in D.C. is race discrimination.

When landlords reject voucher holders, qualify acceptance with conditions, or express uncertainty about their policy, this complicates the process of finding housing for voucher holders. Many individuals and families who use vouchers are already in unstable housing situations, and slowing the process of obtaining housing has dangerous consequences. A recent WUSA9 series reported on the barriers D.C. voucher holders face when looking for housing. One woman, a single mother, commented on the social stigma of finding housing through government assistance: “Because you have a voucher, they just look at you as low, beneath them.” Another interviewee reflected on her need to find stable housing after leaving a bad marriage and dealing with the constant rejections she received from landlords: “It made me feel like I was not worthy enough to find a place to live.”

In D.C., racial segregation has become an all-too-familiar stain on the city’s landscape. In the mid twentieth century, D.C. saw a period of “white flight”, during which white residents moved out of the city and into the suburbs. The District’s population became majority-black in the late 1950s, and by 1980, 70 percent of the population was African American. However, since then, Black families with children have been moving out, and beginning in the early 2000s, young, upwardly mobile whites have been moving in. Today, Black residents comprise less than 50 percent of the D.C. population. Consistently, race and wealth have a troubling relationship in part due to racial segregation. In 2014, the median white family had a staggering 81 times as much wealth as the median Black family in the city, and today Black families are increasingly segregated in Wards 7 and 8.

A stated purpose of the Housing Choice Voucher program was to decrease the spatial concentration of low-income individuals in central cities. Due to redlining and other exclusionary housing policies, most of the residents of poor inner-city neighborhoods were African American. The voucher program intended to help these low-income individuals escape economically insecure neighborhoods, thus reversing trends of racial segregation.

When landlords deny housing to voucher holders, they are not only denying low-income families and individuals a chance for upward mobility but also contributing to the status quo of racial and economic segregation. If we do not acknowledge that discrimination against voucher holders and race discrimination are inextricably connected, the consequence will be the continued displacement of poor, African American, long-time residents of the District.

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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