Local and State Laws Prohibiting Voucher Discrimination Eventually Saves and Makes Tenancies
Fortunately for the Bradleys, Brenda, Lee, Sarah, and at least 30 other tenants who the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office has helped, they were all living in a city that had already long prohibited such discrimination. In 2015, Santa Monica added “source of income” as a protected class to the city’s fair housing ordinance and then went a pioneering step further to define “source of income” as “any lawful source of income or rental assistance from any federal, State, local, or non-profit-administered benefit or subsidy program including, but not limited to, the Section 8 voucher program.”
Since that time, the City Attorney’s Office (CAO), along with help from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, has been able to persuade landlords to turn their no into a yes and accept the vouchers, usually without resorting to litigation. Brenda, Lee, the Bradleys, and 30 other tenants now use their vouchers each month. Sarah’s landlords eventually accepted her voucher too, but only after the CAO sued them for voucher discrimination and then obtained a judgment and injunction in August 2022. (Sunidhi Sridhar, “Santa Monica Successfully Sues Landlords Over Voucher Law,” Los Angeles Daily Journal, Aug. 11, 2022.)
Los Angeles and California followed Santa Monica in 2019 and 2020, respectively, making similar amendments to their fair housing laws. However, Santa Monica’s head start on enforcement and its success help to illustrate recent research by The Urban Institute, showing that while such enforcement improves choices for voucher holders in low-poverty neighborhoods, it can take an optimum blend of years, specificity of legal protections, and a committed enforcement program before such laws make a positive impact. (Daniel Teles and Yipeng Su, “Source of Income Protections and Access to Low-Poverty Neighborhoods,” The Urban Institute, Oct. 2022.) Without the head start and committed enforcement, Los Angeles County still struggles with voucher discrimination, as half of the rental properties in Los Angeles surveyed in 2022 “showed signs of unlawful discrimination against voucher holders.” (Andrew Khouri, “Renters with Vouchers Struggle to Find Housing,” The Los Angeles Times, Nov. 19, 2022.)
For communities in the United States with that head start and strong enforcement, vouchers and other types of rental assistance bring win-win-win opportunities: Tenants get to choose safe, decent, affordable housing; the landlord gets a stable source of rent; and the community deconcentrates poverty, improves diversity, and frees up housing resources for the next person in need.
Each year, more cities and states add source of income protections to their fair housing laws to aid efforts on housing and civil rights, with Albuquerque, New Mexico, being the latest to stand up when the Albuquerque City Council voted to ban Section 8 discrimination in June 2022. And there are potentially more laws in the pipeline. In Lawrence, Kansas, for example, the Human Relations Commission and the Affordable Housing Advisory Board both recently voted to recommend that Lawrence add such protections to its municipal code after a study showed that vouchers were not accepted at 80 percent of the available rental units, and while noting that “refusing to accept vouchers . . . keeps our city segregated and unhoused.” (Mackenzie Clark, “Lawrence’s Human Relations Commission Pushes to Ban Housing Discrimination Based On Source of Income,” The Lawrence Times, Oct. 27, 2022.)
Unfortunately, 34 states and the vast majority of cities haven’t even begun to provide these protections. And most confounding, the federal government itself, from which this funding originates, does not protect its own voucher holders.
Conclusion: Voucher Holders Still Need Federal Protection
The slow and spotty rollout of local and state protections cannot contain the wildfires of discrimination, homelessness, and unaffordability that only a federal effort can put out. In June 2022, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Representative Scott Peters (D-CA) reintroduced The Fair Housing Improvement Act of 2022 (S. 4485; H.R. 8213), which would add “source of income” and “veteran status” as protected classes to the nation’s fair housing laws. Like the many voucher holders denied a chance to apply, the fair housing bill has not been afforded a vote in either house, and a vote seems even less likely in the House of Representatives now that the Republicans will assume control in 2023. But given the acuity of the housing crisis and that vouchers were once embraced by Republicans, perhaps voucher protection could still get a bipartisan vote. Congress, along with each state and city, should consider the now increased value of housing vouchers and make enforcement against voucher discrimination a priority. If they make those choices, it will improve the housing choices for all low-income families.
To protect their privacy, the names of the voucher holders in this article have been changed to pseudonyms.