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Housing vouchers help shelter Kansas families. But too many landlords discriminate against them.

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Housing vouchers help shelter Kansas families. But too many landlords discriminate against them.

Jun 11, 2024 | 4:33 am ET
By Kelm Lear
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Housing vouchers help shelter Kansas families. But too many landlords discriminate against them.
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Housing vouchers offer vital support for Kansas families, but some landlords are reluctant to rent to those receiving assistance. (Getty Images)

Recently, a Manhattan resident contacted all five city commissioners of the Little Apple to express their frustration with suddenly being asked to vacate their long-term residential unit.

The individual described how difficult it is to find adequate housing elsewhere in the city because many landlords refuse to accept prospective tenants who use public assistance to afford housing in the private market. This is a practice commonly referred to as source of income discrimination.

Housing denied

Income discrimination in Manhattan, Kansas, rentals.

This resident participated in the Housing Choice Voucher program. The HCV program is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered by local public housing agencies, such as the Manhattan Housing Authority. Established under Section 8 of the 1937 National Housing Act, the voucher program is the federal government’s largest “program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market.”

With this assistance, HCV tenants are able to find housing appropriate for their income and composition, such as single-family homes, duplexes, and apartments. 

Only one-third of the 2.2 million housing voucher households in the United States are protected by a source of income nondiscrimination policy. This leaves nearly 1.5 million HCV households — largely composed of disabled and elderly folks, and single parents — vulnerable to being denied or asked to vacate their rental unit due to unwillingness of landlords to participate. 

Inspired by the courage of the person who contacted their city commissioners, I decided to investigate why source of income discrimination occurs and estimate the acceptance rate of HCV tenants in Manhattan relative to the nation. 

According to a 2018 report by the Urban Institute, there are two broad reasons why landlords refuse to accept prospective HCV tenants: stigma surrounding housing assistance recipients and bad experiences with the program. 

Potential neighbors and landlords of HCV families fear their property values will decline and their community will experience a rise in crime — common prejudices held against people of color, as well as low-income and disabled people. Landlords also worry that that families receiving housing vouchers are more likely to damage the property and fail to pay rent than other tenants. These feelings exist despite a lack of evidence. In fact, HCV families live in their units an average of seven to eight years, compared with the two to three years unassisted tenants tend to reside in a rental unit.

Landlords are also concerned about their ability to charge HCV households the same rent unassisted tenants pay, evict bad tenants in the event of a lease violation, and control who they lease to.

However, HUD explains that “landlords can charge the full rent no matter who the tenant is.”

The onus is on the local public housing agencies and the prospective housing voucher tenants to determine an affordable rent given their monthly income and assistance. Furthermore, landlords can subject HCV tenants to the same screening and eviction processes agreed to by unassisted tenants, and there is no requirement that properties with such tenants exclusively lease to publicly assisted families. 

In the same article by the Urban Institute, the group found that in cities from four states plus Washington D.C., an average of 53% of landlords denied leasing to prospective HCV tenants. However, in two of these cities — Washington, D.C., and Newark, New Jersey — source of income nondiscrimination policies are in effect. In the three cities without such protections — Fort Worth, Texas; Los Angeles; and Philadelphia — an average of 73.7% of landlords refused to accept HCV families. 

To compare these national survey results to the acceptance rate of HCV tenants in Manhattan, I called a randomly selected group of landlords and property management companies with rental units in the city. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimates there are 14,561 rental units in Manhattan, of which my sample of respondents oversees 4,998 — 34.3% of the rental market in the city.

Based on information gathered from each landlord and property management company I surveyed, 3,610 units (72.2%) of their rental market share are unavailable to prospective housing voucher households. 

The consequences of this widespread denial of housing to very low-income families are antithetical to the mission of public housing agencies, which aim to foster socioeconomically integrated communities where upward mobility and self-sufficiency will not be obstructed by place. With much of the market unavailable to voucher-holders, communities without source of income nondiscrimination policies are likely to see further concentration of low-income people into crowded, dilapidated housing in neighborhoods that lack access to public accommodations such as mass transit, food stores, parks and well-resourced schools.

To combat these adverse effects, a growing number of cities and states are enacting policies that protect people from source of income discrimination. Thanks to the brave housing voucher tenant who contacted the city commissioners, Manhattan is beginning to consider this policy route.

This article is one of four that will be published in the following days and is meant to explain the housing voucher program from the perspective of participants in Manhattan. I hope readers develop an appreciation for the effect  this program has on their communities, specifically the people it helps — tenants and landlords.

Kelm Lear is an intern at the Manhattan Housing Authority. He is in the master’s of public administration program at Kansas State University. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.