January 31, 2024
By Molly Bolan
In many places, it’s illegal for landlords to discriminate against tenants using Section 8 vouchers. Enforcing those rules is difficult, but governments are forging ahead.
Earlier this month, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced plans to create an enforcement unit to quickly respond to complaints about landlords rejecting potential tenants who use federal housing vouchers to cover rent. It’s the latest move in the state’s efforts to better protect households benefiting from one of the most powerful federal housing programs.
More than 2 million low-income families use Section 8 housing vouchers to cover rent. The program is one of the federal government’s most effective: It keeps more than 5 million individuals housed.
The Empire State is far from alone in recognizing voucher discrimination as a challenge. In many cities and states, it’s illegal to reject potential tenants based solely on their source of income, which includes housing vouchers. But even where laws exist to shield potential tenants from discrimination, they aren’t always effectively enforced. That allows landlords to continue to reject tenants with vouchers and makes it difficult for families to find property owners who will accept the subsidy, observers said.
It’s important to note that nationwide, all vouchers are getting used, meaning that there are enough landlords accepting vouchers, according to Will Fischer, senior director for housing policy and research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But housing voucher discrimination limits where recipients can live. A household reliant on a voucher, for example, may find the only willing landlords are in unsafe neighborhoods, or tenants may need to move into a different school district to use their voucher.
Sometimes the motive behind voucher rejections are more insidious, according to Sarah Saadian, senior vice president of public policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“There are a lot of landlords who will say that the reason why they’re not renting to someone is because of the voucher when really that’s a proxy for racial discrimination or discrimination on the basis of disability,” she said.
Seventeen states and dozens of cities and counties ban source-of-income discrimination. Nearly 60% of renters are protected by source-of-income anti-discrimination laws—up from 34% in 2018, according to the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. But while cities and states are increasingly passing laws to prevent discrimination, enforcement is lacking in many areas.