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"Needed Element: Laws Prohibiting Source of Income Discrimination,"

by Libby Perl January/February 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

I agree with the premise of Alexander Polikoff’s proposal that housing vouchers are the best way to attack concentrations of poverty and segregation in urban communities. Yet Polikoff’s worthy program is likely to fail unless the law governing housing vouchers is changed. As voucher law exists in most communities, landlords can and do refuse to accept vouchers. The high standards for the neighborhoods into which voucher tenants would move in Polikoff’s proposal (less than 10% poverty, and non-minority impacted neighborhoods) could therefore present a problem. While Gautreaux moved tenants into neighborhoods that were not more than 30% black, it did not use poverty thresholds. And while it is true that Chicago has had continued success placing voucher tenants in less poor neighborhoods since Gautreaux, the program there still sets its poverty threshold at 24%, and does not use racial composition as a criterion. Finally, Moving to Opportunity families moved to low-poverty neighborhoods on a smaller scale without taking account of racial composition.

To assist in attacking concentrations of poverty, a nationwide Gautreaux program should be accompanied by efforts to amend fair housing law to forbid landlords from refusing to rent to tenants based on their source of income, including housing vouchers. Although a national law against voucher discrimination may politically be a tough sell, if Gautreaux were to be a national program, efforts to prevent source of income discrimination should be national as well. In the meantime, it might be necessary to scale back the plan’s expectations for neighborhood poverty and minority thresholds.

Currently, 12 states and the District of Columbia have laws that prevent source of income discrimination, although the language in some of the statutes makes it unclear whether housing vouchers are included. Various cities and counties also prohibit source of income discrimination. These laws improve the ability of voucher holders to find housing. A November 2001 Department of Housing and Urban Development study found that voucher holders in jurisdictions with laws prohibiting source of income discrimination had a probability of success in finding housing that was 12 percentage points greater (and statistically significant) than tenants in jurisdictions without protection.

The refusal to accept vouchers often hides a malignant basis for denying housing to voucher tenants — the deformed fruits that Polikoff describes. Granted, laws that prohibit source of income discrimination will not stop this behavior; even though Chicago has a law prohibiting source of income discrimination, a study by the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing found that 55% of landlords in areas preferred by the housing authority would not accept vouchers. Yet the laws give advocates a tool to begin discouraging discriminatory behavior, give tenants access to landlords who follow the law and do not discriminate, and could eventually bring about a change in attitudes toward voucher tenants and make them an accepted part of every community. Polikoff’s idea to expand Gautreaux is a good one, I simply do not have as much faith that landlords in low-poverty communities would step forward and voluntarily rent their apartments to enough voucher tenants for it to work on a large scale.

Libby Perl is a program officer at The Century Foundation and previously worked on housing issues as a Legal Aid attorney.

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