Breaking Down Income Discrimination in the Housing Voucher Program

How Housing Vouchers Work 

The Section 8 Housing Voucher Program, also known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program, provides rental assistance to low-income Americans. In 2018, the program provided more than 2.2 million households and 5 million people with rental assistance. 

Vouchers help make housing affordable for low-income individuals. Holders pay 30 percent of their monthly adjusted gross income income toward rent and utilities, while the government pays the remaining cost. If the tenants do not have any income, they pay up to a maximum amount of $50 per month.

To determine eligibility for the Housing Choice Voucher Program, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sets income limits. Income limits vary by location and are based on calculations of the median income and fair market rent in the area in which the given family chooses to live. When allocating vouchers, 75 percent of recipients must be “extremely low-income,” meaning their earnings are lower than 30 percent of the area’s median income or the federal poverty line, whichever is higher. When someone receives a housing choice voucher, they have limited time to find an apartment to rent. Though extensions are occasionally possible, the standard period is usually between 60 and 120 days

The Positive Impact of Rental Assistance

Housing insecurity increases public health care costs while lowering productivity and increasing reliance on social support programs. Prior research demonstrates that substandard housing conditions are associated with higher rates of chronic illnesses, infectious diseases, injuries, and poor mental health and nutrition. Additionally, millions more low-income households are becoming severely burdened by the cost of renting. About 10.9 million renters spent over half of their income on housing in 2018.

Research shows that housing vouchers help millions of America’s most vulnerable. Vouchers help to prevent homelessness and increase long-term health and economic outcomes of children in low-income families. In fact, a HUD-funded study called the “Moving to Opportunity” project, found significant benefits to families after using vouchers to move to lower-poverty neighborhoods. In addition to better health outcomes and higher projected future incomes, children were significantly more likely to attend college. Rental assistance may help break the cycle of disadvantage that results in persisting generational poverty.

Income Discrimination in the Section 8 Program

In reality, landlords routinely discriminate against renters with voucher holders, threatening a social program aimed at aiding the nation’s poorest. According to the HUD, this income discrimination especially occurs in higher-rent areas with higher-quality schools, transportation and jobs. Families in the Section 8 program often encounter landlords who refuse to take their vouchers or find other ways to avoid renting to them, including falsely claiming that they have no available apartments. Even more commonly, prospective tenants wishing to pay with government assistance often receive ambiguity in responses essentially serving as denial without being outright.

In fact, the Urban Institute conducted research by pretending to be voucher holders and calling thousands of landlords in 5 cities with apartments affordable by voucher. In Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Fort Worth, over two-thirds of landlords said they would refuse to accept Section 8 housing vouchers. 

Source of Income Protections at the State Level

Current protections targeting income discrimination stopping low-income families on financial government assistance from accessing housing are being implemented at the state level. 13 states, the District of Columbia, and over 50 cities and counties across the nation have passed Source of Income laws or ordinances prohibiting landlords from refusing to rent to Section 8 voucher holders. Essentially, landlords are required to treat voucher holders the same as they would any other applicant, regardless of method of payment.

Importantly, these protections seem to work. New research shows reductions in neighborhood poverty rates associated with the implementation of Source of Income laws. Additionally, protections increase voucher use and the Section 8 program’s effectiveness. Though research is mixed on whether Source of Income protections help families reach higher-opportunity neighborhoods, evidence shows that protections result in higher rates of success for those seeking housing. 

The progress being made to implement protections against income discrimination in the voucher program is at the state level, but many areas haven’t passed Source of Income laws. The Poverty and Race Research Action Council estimates that only about half of all voucher holders are protected by Source of Income laws.

Progress on the Federal Stage

At the federal level, several bills protecting against income discrimination in the housing voucher program have been introduced. However, no federal protections have passed. Currently, Americans are protected from basic discrimination when renting or buying a home under the Fair Housing Act, but this legislation does not directly address source of income.

The fundamental legislation still pending is S.3612 – the Fair Housing Improvement Act. This bill was introduced in the Senate on November 13, 2018 by Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, before referral to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Essentially, the bill would provide broad protection against discrimination in housing on the basis of source of income or veteran status. 

Another relevant bill is the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act. The bill was introduced in 2018 in the Senate as S.3503 and in the House as H.R.7262, and would expand protections under the Fair Housing Act in addition to establishing programs to improve housing affordability and access.

Noah Charlick is a sophomore from Canton, Ohio, studying Public Policy and Global Health.




Who is Actually Served and Protected? An Overview of Nuisance Property Ordinances

Summary: Despite being designed to limit public harm that occurs on properties, nuisance property ordinances perpetuate systemic housing barriers faced by domestic violence victims.

Today more than ever, the duty of police to “serve and protect” has come under public scrutiny. The law, however, should not be exempt from the same criticism – especially as it applies to housing. Often overlooked, laws concerning housing and property can be just as potent in criminalizing marginalized groups. This is especially true of nuisance ordinances, the latest development in a series of laws aimed at “hold[ing] property owners liable for criminal activity on the premises.”

Also called disorderly house ordinances or crime-free ordinances, nuisance ordinances were originally intended to dissuade tenants from unnecessarily using police resources. Police members also consider nuisance ordinances a way to “maintain the quality of life in a community” and “provide incentives for preventing criminal activity.” From a landlord perspective, nuisance ordinances force landlords to record and report “nuisances” or face punishment. In most states, nuisance ordinances include a limit on how many times a certain property can call 911 in a given amount of time. Once violations are confirmed by the local police department, the landlord has the right to evict tenants, refuse to renew their license or instruct them not to call 911.  

Although the idea behind nuisance ordinances appears simple enough, the reality is vastly different. Nuisance ordinances often fail at achieving their intended goals, serving more as a tool of punishment than maintenance. A large part of this can be traced to the statute itself, which, at its best, is frustratingly vague. The public nuisances included in nuisance ordinance laws are part of a “catch-all criminal offense” that includes anything that could threaten public health, safety, or morals. As a result, properties can be designated nuisances for a number of reasons, ranging from “frivolous” calls to the police to assault and anything in between. As legal scholars observe, “[t]here is general agreement that [nuisance ordinances are] are incapable of any exact or comprehensive definition’ because [they] contain a mixture of criminal law, tort law, and property law.”

However, at their worst, ordinance laws can outright endanger innocent tenants – especially domestic violence victims. In fact, the broadness of the statute means that in most cities, domestic violence-related incidents are included as nuisances. In Norristown, Pennsylvania, for example, an eviction was sanctioned after police were called multiple times to the same property for “disorderly behavior” – which itself was not only “broadly defined,” but also “explicitly included acts of domestic violence.” A study of 40 cities across the United States found similar results, as only six cities explicitly exempted domestic violence-related incidents.

By categorizing domestic violence incidents as nuisances, nuisance ordinances make no distinction between victim and perpetrator. More often than not, they punish the former, not the latter. A 2013 study of every property citation in Milwaukee found that “nearly a third of all nuisance citations were triggered by domestic violence.” Of those incidents, 83% resulted in either eviction or threat of eviction to the tenant – who, in the vast majority of cases, was the battered woman, not the batterer. Nuisance ordinances target victims for both being abused and seeking help, effectively lumping them in the same category as their abuser. Even worse, the harms of nuisance ordinances continue even after the tenant has been evicted. Being evicted as a nuisance stays on a tenant’s record for life, making it difficult for tenants to find housing in the future. In this sense, nuisance ordinances only exacerbate historical barriers already faced by underprivileged groups seeking housing.

If nuisance ordinances “maintain the quality of life for a community,” they do so only for a privileged few. In the status quo, nuisance ordinances are used more to criminalize those who need help the most for seeking it. Weakened by vagueness and exploited by police and landlords, nuisance ordinances serve as yet another example of how the intentions and impacts of a law can rarely intersect. They simultaneously justify the lack of police attention to domestic violence and vilify victims, forcing survivors to choose between having a place to live and enduring abuse. The current system does not target nuisances or criminals: it targets America’s most vulnerable.

Reforming the current system then is a moral imperative as much as it is a legal one. Allowing nuisance ordinances to continue undermines the original intent of the law at the expense of domestic violence victims, calling into question the efficiency of the statute in the first place. Preventing legitimate harms to the public is certainly a valid aim, but ensuring that nuisance ordinances fulfill that goal requires addressing domestic violence-related incidents. More specifically, nuisance ordinances should exclude domestic violence-related incidents, not include them. Hazleton, Pennsylvania, for example, explicitly excludes victims of crimes who “had no control over the criminal act” from being categorized as nuisances. Yet, even this is far from a perfect solution, as victims could be blamed for either allowing abusers to enter their homes or preventing the abuser from doing so.

Effectively reforming nuisance ordinances is far more challenging than it appears, complicated further by the troubling and expansive dynamics of domestic violence. True reform requires more than considering domestic violence victims; it requires understanding specific situations victims are subjected to and choices they are forced to make. It requires realizing that it is far too easy for a law to harm those it is intended to protect. The complexity of reform, however, does not make it an impossible process. It makes it a necessary one.

Isadora Toledo is a freshman from Buffalo, NY, planning to major in public policy/political science.