When It Comes to Housing, Your Voucher Is Your Stigma
“Your money is no good here.” That’s the message regularly communicated to families with verifiable, legal payment seeking rental housing in cities across the country.
Legally, no landlord in the U.S. can turn away a prospective tenant because of race, color, national origin, religion, disability, or children in the household (except in a handful of circumstances, such as the “Mrs. Murphy” exemption). Some states and municipalities even have their own housing ordinances barring discrimination based on a handful of other characteristics such as age or sexual orientation. Why, then, are so many families with rent money in hand being blocked from housing?
The answer is that in almost every city in 42 states, it’s legal for landlords to turn you away if you use housing vouchers.
In a country that proclaims a love of freedom, grit, and determination, the Housing Choice Voucher Program (often referred to as “Section 8”) is something we should be proud of. Housing vouchers mean that folks bringing home peanuts for paychecks can rent decent, safe places to live. Moreover, unlike public housing, a voucher means you choose on the private market the neighborhood and apartment that you determine will make a good home for you and your family. In other words, Housing Choice vouchers allow you to navigate the search for suitable housing with dignity, even if your paycheck is small.
That’s the idea, anyway. In reality, your voucher is your stigma.
Let’s say you’re one of the lucky families whose name gets picked from a voucher waiting list after years of scraping by with no housing assistance. Suddenly, you see a whole new future: You imagine picking out the right place to live. You know it will probably be small, maybe a little cramped as the kids grow, but all the light switches and faucets will work, the refrigerator will stay cold, the stove will turn on, and the doors will have locks. The neighborhood will be safe, with good schools that you wouldn’t be able to afford without the help of the voucher no matter how many extra shifts you pulled at your hourly, minimum-wage job. What’s more, you’ll have a regular place for your kids to sleep, play, do homework, and bring friends over — where you can kick your shoes off and decompress for a few minutes after work, before getting back up to make sure everyone has dinner, baths, and something to wear to school tomorrow. While not perfect, your new place will be a home where you can invite family over for holidays and birthdays, turn up the music on a hot summer evening, and laugh and argue and celebrate and cry and do all the things that families do.
It may be hard — really hard — to make ends meet every month, since the voucher only pays for a portion of the rent and doesn’t help with the utilities. But you’ll know that you’re making a better life for your kids, that they’ll become better educated, and they’ll grow up and use their educations to find good jobs. Maybe they won’t need vouchers to pay the rent once they’re out on their own. Maybe they’ll invite you over for birthdays and holidays to laugh and argue and turn up the music at their homes… A voucher, in short, is your chance to break the generational cycle of poverty; it’s how you’ll do that quintessentially American thing we call picking yourself (and your family) up by the bootstraps.
But when landlords hear you say “voucher,” they imagine something quite different. To them, a voucher means the government is involved and inspections have to been done. In reality, government involvement means that the majority of each monthly rent payment will be guaranteed, and inspections require little more than basics such as hot and cold running water and working lights. But maybe you’ll be too loud, too messy, have too many people over, or damage property. What if the neighbors complain? Vouchers mean you’re poor, right? Surely that comes with all kinds of problems…
As a result, you have no opportunity to prove that you’ll be a good tenant, no chance to settle in and build relationships with the neighbors. Your money is no good here. Voucher holders need not apply.
A recent report by the Housing Research & Advocacy Center notes that voucher holders in Cuyahoga County, Ohio consider finding a neighborhood with a low crime rate to be their top priority when searching for housing. Yet nearly 90 percent will end up clustered into racially-segregated areas with high poverty, high crime, low educational opportunities, and prevalent environmental health hazards.
What do voucher holders identify as their greatest challenge? Landlords refusing to accept vouchers. This is no anomaly. All over the country studies are revealing a widespread refusal to accept vouchers. It’s happening legally in cities like Pittsburgh, and it’s happening illegally in cities like New York City and Seattle.
Improving federal fair housing law to bar discrimination based on source of income — and making clear that this includes vouchers — is a critical step towards equitable housing access for families with small incomes. Municipal and state-level ordinances are important, too. But fair housing laws only work if renters and landlords know about the laws and the laws are enforced. Federal protections mean access to the resources and mechanisms necessary for awareness and enforcement.
This is not a cure-all. Some landlords may still rely on other, less blatant tactics to avoid renting to voucher holders, such as raising rental prices above the level vouchers will cover or requiring large security deposits that families with vouchers will likely not be able to afford. Fair and equitable housing is a complex issue that will continue to require ongoing attention. But a first step is making sure that poor families who are able to pay rent cannot be turned away for being poor.
Kristi Andrasik, LISW-S, is a Ph.D. student at the Cleveland State University Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs and Program Officer at The Cleveland Foundation.