Voucher Discrimination Has Consequences:

Stemming the tide of displacement through creative responses to discrimination

By Aastha Uprety and Kate Scott
May 30, 2019

The neighborhood of Barry Farm at the intersection of Eaton Rd. and Firth Sterling Ave.The neighborhood of Barry Farm at the intersection of Eaton Rd. and Firth Sterling Ave. “Barry Farm Washington D.C.” by Eric T. Gunther is licensed under CC BY 3.0

This article is the third in a series about source of income discrimination. See also: In the District, Source of Income Discrimination is Race Discrimination, Too and Beyond “No Section 8 Accepted”

Recent research has shown that Washington, D.C. has the highest percentage of gentrifying neighborhoods among U.S. cities. Low-income African Americans have been displaced from the city at rates unlike other areas in the country, and recent demographic trends show young white professionals moving in while Black families with children move out. Gentrification can price residents out of a community, exacerbate homelessness and housing instability, and suppress the cultural identity of an area—all major problems that D.C. finds itself grappling with in 2019. Source of income discrimination—also known as voucher discrimination—can be a driver of or exacerbate these problems.

According to the D.C. Human Rights Act, it is illegal for landlords to refuse to accept potential tenants based on the fact that they use housing vouchers or other government-subsidized rental payments. Such refusal is known as source of income discrimination and it has been well-documented in cities across the country, with or without protective laws. Despite the long-standing presence of this law in the District, voucher holders still face numerous obstacles while searching for housing, including illegal discrimination.

Furthermore, discrimination against housing voucher holders is akin to racial discrimination in D.C. The exclusion of low-income individuals and families, especially African American families, from the private rental market contributes to the ongoing patterns of gentrification and displacement seen in the District. For these reasons, the ERC has made combatting source of income discrimination a major component of our local fair housing work.

Undoing the harm that discrimination causes requires creative approaches

For the past few years, the ERC has been monitoring online housing advertisements, on platforms from Craigslist to Zillow, for discriminatory language. We have noticed that despite the existence of source of income protections in D.C., housing providers frequently post advertisements with blatantly discriminatory and illegal language, such as “No section 8 accepted”, “This unit does not accept housing vouchers”, or “NO VOUCHERS”. As a result, voucher holders face an unnecessarily difficult housing search process that can sometimes lead to them losing access to the voucher program altogether.

When the ERC comes across discriminatory advertising, we begin by reaching out to the poster and explaining that what they are doing is likely illegal. We ask them to stop advertising in such a way and lead them to resources that will allow them to educate themselves about the obligations they have as a housing provider to ensure everyone receives equal treatment when looking for housing.

Recently, the ERC faced a situation where a landlord posted blatantly discriminatory language in an ad for a large single-family home in the Northwest quadrant of the city. This ad embodied two obstacles that voucher holders often face when looking for housing: finding a unit large enough to house a family and navigating the racially segregated neighborhoods of D.C.

Due to demographic trends in D.C., there is an extreme shortage of family-sized units available for rent to voucher holders and others. Over the past two decades, shifts in the D.C. housing market have resulted in housing stock tailored to meet the needs and interests of young professionals, changes that have made it more difficult for families to find places to live. One- and two-bedroom units in expensive, high-rise buildings, concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods, comprise the majority of new housing in the city. In addition, the recent redevelopments of housing complexes such as Barry Farm and Brookland Manor have led to a number of families being displaced from their homes, unsure of whether they’ll be able to return. Such redevelopment plans have called for building additional one-bedroom units while demolishing larger apartments, especially those with three or more bedrooms. Therefore, a single-family home like the one in this advertisement is prime real estate for voucher-holding families.

This discriminatory advertisement also raised concerns about persistent racial segregation in the city. Northwest D.C., where the advertised home is located, is overwhelmingly white, while Black residents of D.C. typically reside in the Southeast or Northeast parts of the city. Additionally, over 90 percent of voucher holders in D.C. are Black, compared to only 48 percent of the city’s population. By denying housing to voucher holders, the landlord advertising the unit in Northwest likely prevented numerous Black voucher holders from living in a majority-white neighborhood and perpetuated racial segregation in D.C., a characteristic that has unfortunately not changed as quickly as the rest of the District has over the past two decades.

The ERC reached out to the landlord who posted this advertisement in the manner described above, and encouraged them to accept applications from voucher-holding households. However, the landlord rented the unit to a non-voucher holding tenant before an agreement about how to mitigate the harm that the discriminatory advertising caused could be reached.

Since the unit had already been rented, we had to get creative. As such, a formal agreement to resolve the matter required the landlord to make a significant donation to Empower DC, a local community organizing project.

Empower DC seeks to “enhance, improve and promote the self-advocacy of low and moderate income DC residents in order to bring about sustained improvements in their quality life.” Through grassroots organizing, community education, and leadership development and trainings, Empower DC fights for a number of issues that directly impact the lives of D.C. residents, including affordable housing. Empower DC plans to commit the donation from this landlord to their housing work, which goes toward improving and preserving public housing in the District.

Notably, Empower DC has been involved in the efforts to save Barry Farm, a historic public housing complex in Southeast D.C. The D.C. Housing Authority has long planned to redevelop Barry Farm, which would involve reducing the number of existing public housing units and adding market-rate housing units and space for retail to the area. Barry Farm is unique because it is one of the few housing complexes in the city with family-sized units. When redevelopment began, many residents of Barry Farm were given housing vouchers so that they could find a new place to live. But many of the voucher holders, particularly families, struggle to find housing as a result of source of income discrimination, race discrimination, and the shortage of family-sized units in D.C. As the cost of living in their original homes rises and voucher discrimination runs rampant, many residents of Barry Farm are afraid of being permanently displaced.

The DC Housing Authority has recently announced plans to reposition 2,400 units of public housing where poor conditions have deemed the properties nearly uninhabitable. Tenants of properties slated for redevelopment such as these are often given housing vouchers for assistance with relocating. However, because of challenges faced by voucher holders when seeking housing, including illegal discrimination, many tenants are not able to secure housing prior to the 6-month time limit after which some vouchers become void. A growing reliance on vouchers to house tenants of dilapidated public housing will require extra vigilance to ensure these residents are not forced out of the city or into homelessness as a result of housing discrimination.

The work that Empower DC does is invaluable to communities in the District. As gentrifying forces strengthen and displacement increases, the ERC has contemplated its own role as a civil rights organization engaged in local fair housing work. As we educate landlords about their fair housing responsibilities in the city, we always keep in mind the bigger picture within which source of income discrimination operates. In this instance, since the single-family home in Northwest D.C. was no longer available for voucher holders to apply for, we were able to mitigate the harm caused by encouraging the landlord to financially contribute to larger efforts to stem displacement. Through creative approaches, we can address the broader impacts of discrimination.

Special thanks to Parisa Norouzi for assisting in the development of this piece.

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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