Think it’s hard to find housing in the District? Try doing it on a Section 8 voucher.
The approximately 11,000 low-income D.C. residents on housing choice vouchers, which cover their rent beyond the 30 percent of their income that they pay, face persistent discrimination from landlords and property managers. According to a study released yesterday by the Equal Rights Center, 28 percent of voucher holders faced were subject to discrimination in their housing search.
And that’s something to celebrate.
The ERC conducted similar studies in 2005 and 2010. The 2005 study found that 61 percent of voucher holders faced discrimination, defined as “outright refusal to accept vouchers, limiting the use of the voucher, imposing different terms or conditions for voucher holders, or imposing limitations that would effectively bar voucher holders from obtaining the housing.” The 2010 study reported a drop to 45 percent. The latest investigation was conducted between July 2011 and January 2013 and had trained ERC testers call 90 properties pretending to be voucher holders.
Discrimination was highest in Northeast at 36 percent, though it’s just marginally higher than in Northwest and Southeast. All four housing providers in Southwest accepted the vouchers.
So what’s the reason for the decline? According to ERC Executive Director Don Kahl, it’s ERC’s “focused education and outreach,” including collaboration with the D.C. Office of Human Rights and work with voucher holders and landlords. ERC, he says, worked with “scores, if not into the hundreds” of landlords. Kahl says ERC was also sometimes forced to take enforcement action against landlords, through complaints with the Office of Human Rights and lawsuits.
But there’s likely a second factor here: the recession. The study was conducted in 2011 and 2012, a time when high unemployment and a volatile economy meant that market renters weren’t so reliable. So landlords may have realized that a monthly payment from the federal government for voucher tenants wasn’t such a bad deal.
“I’ve never really tried to put myself in the mind of a landlord or a management company, but we’ve always thought there were definite advantages to landlords participating in the housing choice voucher payment for the very reason you mentioned,” Kahl says. “Our anecdotal information has always been that housing choice voucher tenants tend to be very stable tenants. They stay longer than people who may hop from apartment to apartment.”