Housing Havoc: Finding Solutions to Section 8 Voucher Discrimination

April 30, 2019 Sydney Tindell King

Housing Havoc: Finding Solutions to Section 8 Voucher Discrimination

Lonsdale Homes via KCDC.com


“Section 8 voucher” holds a similar connotation to “welfare queen”. Oftentimes, people in poverty who use government assistance are societally viewed as lazy and unproductive even though there’s scant evidence to support that claim.

A new study completed by Housing and Urban Development finds that landlords also feed that stereotype, discriminating against renters with housing vouchers. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent among landlords in higher rent areas with high quality schools, jobs, and transportation.

Landlords often refuse to lease to voucher holders due to a stigma against them, as shown in a different study, finding that two-thirds of landlords who had rented to Section 8 holders had a negative experience and vowed to never do the same again.

“They don’t run their lives like us, they weren’t brought up like us,” said one landlord in the Johns Hopkins study.

While researchers admittedly found it difficult to separate real incidents from personal prejudices, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that individuals with section 8 vouchers cause more damage to units than any other renters.

Landlord Michael McKay, who accepts vouchers at his property in Knoxville, calls Section 8 a “great program that does good things for those who have it.”

Some landlords reported a dislike of the bureaucratic aspect of filling out paperwork and passing regular inspections for health and safety concerns.

McKay speaking in an interview, says he has not seen prejudices against voucher holders from landlords, but agrees that landlords might have to jump through too many hoops.

It’s a time-consuming process, he concedes. There are extra upfront regulatory costs (mostly relating to lead-based paint), quality inspections, and meeting minimum HUD housing standards involved.

McKay says these things have benefitted him in the end: “Routine inspections allow you to catch things that would normally go unnoticed and I have better kept property as a result.”

He also says it is short sighted to see these requirements as negatives.

McKay views the Section 8 program as a win-win for both the tenant and he as a landlord. But he might be the exception.

“Most landlords are about the money because that’s their livelihood, and it makes it difficult for us because we want landlords that care about their tenants, not ones that simply put them in a unit and leave them alone,” says Debbie Taylor-Allen, Section 8 Director for Knox County at the Knoxville Community Development Corporation. She currently oversees 4,000 vouchers and 1,200 landlords.

Many voucher holders utilize resources at KCDC to locate housing because they work closely with landlords who accept vouchers, and the organization encourages landlords to check on the tenants, ensuring that they do not end up evicted or on the street. For many landlords, this is too much to ask.

“I have a different business model,” McKay says. “I don’t see tenants as dollar signs.” He added, “This is a great program for getting help, and I see it as a decision where if you’re put in a position to help someone, you can.”

To encourage landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers, Taylor-Allen says she would like to see a policy in place whereby HUD would pay landlords for damages done to properties. Part of the reason landlords are oftentimes reluctant to accept Section 8 vouchers is because of the risk associated with low-income tenants, who sometimes come with a host of other problems including job instability and mental health issues.

McKay agrees that damage coverage may attract more landlords; Knowing this cost is covered, it may encourage them to take a chance on someone with a voucher. Taylor-Allen suggests that one solution may be for HUD to compensate landlords for up to a certain amount like $500 in damages.

Another potential solution already making strides in some states is to expand legal representation for tenants in the form of source-of -income protections. These laws protect households who rely on legal sources of income such as public benefits or housing vouchers, to pay their rent. This prevents landlords from denying, evicting, or treating tenants unfairly, according to the Poverty & Race Research Action Council .

The HUD study found that in the locations observed, landlord refusal of vouchers is more common in jurisdictions without source-of-income protections.

Twelve states and many cities have already enacted such laws that make it illegal for landlords to deny housing to individuals with vouchers.

It is possible that with more legal representation for voucher holders, Knoxville would see fewer landlords deny housing to low-income tenants.

As a solution, McKay points to programs like CAC’s Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover (KEEM) of 2016. KEEM along with TVA, KUB, and other groups offered energy upgrades to Section 8 rental properties and real tangible improvements were made as a result. The upgrades also resulted in lower rents and utility costs for tenants.

KEEM is a program that represents a concerted effort of a community to make real changes for low-income units at no cost to Section 8 landlords other than a $25-dollar application fee.

The best universal policy approach however, is to allocate funds for the development of more affordable housing, according to both Taylor-Allen and McKay.

From 2005 to 2015, rents increased 15.5 % across the U.S., according to US Census. As of 2017, the cost of a two-bedroom rental In Knoxville would require an hourly wage of $17.19 per hour or 95 hours of work per week at minimum wage, according to data from rentcafe.com.

Taylor-Allen says the stigma of Section 8 vouchers also affects the development of low-income housing. Many homeowners in gentrifying or established neighborhoods take a “not in my backyard” attitude.

Knoxville has been taking steps to overcome that attitude over the last couple of years as two new low-income units are being built in South Knoxville (as shown below) and near Pond Gap in West Knoxville.

The two new complexes will create a total of 252 new affordable housing units.

“These are new affordable apartment buildings and with project-based vouchers, there will be a lot of places to put people that are waiting with a voucher and nowhere to go,” Taylor-Allen said in an interview.

When it comes to affordable housing, Taylor-Allen emphasized that open dialogue and public engagement are crucial.

“I think [KCDC] talking to people helps, and we do that all the time. I go out and speak in public places often. I go to churches and social service agencies for the voucher program and sometimes to promote public housing. I think that’s the big thing is putting the word out there and engaging in discussion.”

Knoxville is making steps in addressing affordable housing.

In her budget as Mayor of Knoxville, Madeline Rogero set aside $2.5 million for the Affordable Rental Development Fund.

“Two years ago, we created the Affordable Rental Development Fund to provide gap funding for affordable rental housing. To date, we have allocated $5.5 million from this fund which, so far, has leveraged another $86 million from other sources, with 517 units completed or in process,” Rogero said in her final State of the City address.

In her final address, Rogero, as shown in the photo from City of Knoxville, emphasized that when it comes to affordable housing, work remains.

“It is important to know that, despite the great efforts in our community over recent years, the issue of affordable housing availability will not be solved quickly.  It will take a continued and sustained effort by the city and its partners.”

Whether it is attracting landlords to accept more vouchers, or incentivizing developers to create more affordable housing, more can be done through open discussion, organizing, community action, and policy proposals.