Beyond “No Section 8 Accepted”:
Understanding how various landlord actions, beyond outright denials, can make it difficult for voucher holders to obtain housing
This article is the second in a series about source of income discrimination. See also: In the District, Source of Income Discrimination is Race Discrimination Too
Over 11 thousand households in Washington, D.C. participate in 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. In D.C., landlords will sometimes refuse to accept potential tenants who use housing vouchers. This is known as source of income discrimination–or voucher discrimination–and it is prohibited by the DC Human Rights Act. Despite this law, voucher holders still face numerous obstacles while searching for housing, from illegal outright denials to more covert forms of deterrence and discouragement.
Anti-discrimination laws can help curb source of income discrimination, but effective enforcement is critical. Researchers have found that voucher holders in metropolitan areas without source of income protections see higher denial rates than voucher holders looking for housing in areas where source of income is a protected class. However, discrimination persists, even in the places where protective laws exist, including Washington, D.C.
Why “No” isn’t the only obstacle voucher holders face
It is important to consider what constitutes “denial” when assessing the prevalence of discrimination and the difficulties that voucher holders face when looking for housing. In 2016, we conducted civil rights testing to investigate voucher discrimination in the District. Out of the 15 tests that we conducted, three housing providers told testers blatantly that they would not accept vouchers. However, an additional two said they were unsure of the application process for voucher holders, two others told testers that it was the property owner’s decision whether or not to rent to voucher holders, and one property manager said that it was the owner’s decision but speculated that they would choose not to rent to a voucher holder. Despite requests to do so, none of these housing providers followed up with testers posing as vouchers holders to explain their application processes or to provide information about whether they would accept vouchers.
When landlords tell potential tenants that they are unsure of their voucher policy, it makes an already-difficult housing search process even harder for voucher holders. Voucher holders often hear responses like the ones in our study from multiple housing providers, and this kind of ambiguity effectively serves as a denial, especially when landlords do not follow up with interested home-seekers with what their voucher policy actually is. The vast majority of housing units in D.C. are required to accept housing vouchers, therefore this is often an incorrect and potentially even disingenuous excuse.
Similarly, an Urban Institute study from earlier this year found that 15 percent of landlords investigated in the District issued illegal outright denials to voucher holders, stating that the property does not accept housing vouchers. But importantly, there was also an additional 14 percent of landlords who stated that they were unsure of their policy, as described above, or would only accept vouchers with conditions, another action that deters housing applicants. Notably, the Urban Institute sampling achieved statistical significance.
Housing providers also institute other policies and procedures that yield categorical denials of voucher holding tenants. We argue that these also constitute source of income discrimination. For example, a housing provider may express a willingness to accept a voucher holding tenant, but institute a policy that limits how long a unit can be held to a shorter time than it is possible for a voucher holder to make it through the voucher program’s lease up process. In other instances, a landlord may illegally apply an income requirement that would disqualify anyone whose income qualifies them for the voucher program to begin with from successfully applying (see this resource we put together about best practices for how to institute income requirements that don’t run afoul of source of income protections).
Regardless of whether a landlord is a large housing company or a small-scale property owner, it is always illegal to post advertisements that discriminate against voucher holders. This includes verbally stating that you do not accept tenants who use housing vouchers, an action that is always prohibited under D.C.’s Human Rights Act. The ERC regularly encounters online advertisements which flat-out state that Section 8 housing vouchers or other types of housing subsidies are not accepted.
Ending source of income discrimination in the District
Protecting low-income residents against source of income discrimination is also important to the fight against homelessness. In 2017, we filed a lawsuit against Belmont Crossing Apartments for violating D.C.’s source of income protections by refusing to accept rental payments via temporary housing subsidies, short-term housing subsidies that typically help homeless individuals and families find housing. In October, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that temporary housing vouchers are, in fact, protected by the city’s prohibition on source of income discrimination and that it is illegal to discriminate against potential tenants with such short-term subsidies. Temporary housing subsidies, commonly known as rapid re-housing vouchers, are often a ticket out of homelessness for many families, and have been a cornerstone of D.C.’s fight against homelessness. An Urban Institute study from October found that, nationally, rapid re-housing voucher programs help families exit homeless shelters and transition to housing units faster and at a lower cost than they would be able to without vouchers.
The ERC has been engaged in local advocacy against source of income discrimination in recent years. Throughout the past year, we monitored websites for illegal and discriminatory housing advertisements and doubled the D.C. Office of Human Rights’ caseload of source of income complaints. Through outreach and advocacy letters, we entered agreements with multiple property owners that involve trainings and commitments to affirmative marketing. Additionally, in 2017, we resolved a discrimination lawsuit against a large D.C. housing provider, which required them to affirmatively market housing units to voucher holders, undergo fair housing training, and take other steps to prevent source of income discrimination.
Discriminating against voucher holders not only can result in expensive lawsuits, time spent on trainings, and additional efforts from property owners, but also hurts low-income individuals and families who are trying to escape the streets and move into safe housing. Voucher holders are often times in precarious situations and/or have spent long periods of time searching for housing to no avail. Discrimination against them, whether through outright denial or more covert methods, is another blow to their efforts to find safe, stable, and secure homes.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.