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The Department of Housing and Urban Development is launching a task force to look at landlord participation in the program.
Landlords often discriminate against people seeking to rent apartments using vouchers provided through one of the federal government’s largest housing assistance programs, according to new research that looked at five U.S. metro areas.
The pilot study on the Housing Choice Voucher program was conducted by the Urban Institute and funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the program.
Upwards of 2 million households have used the rental assistance in recent years.
People posing as renters seeking to use vouchers were rejected at lower rates in two places with laws to prevent discrimination against voucher-holders, the researchers found.
“Landlords are not passive actors in the HCV program,” a summary of the research says. “They have incredible power in deciding if voucher holders can use housing benefits and, ultimately, where voucher holders can live.”
HUD on Monday said that it would launch a task force as part of a broader effort to encourage more landlords to accept vouchers.
The new study looks at areas in and around Fort Worth, Texas; Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Newark, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C.
It is the largest study of its kind conducted to date, according to the Urban Institute.
To complete the study, researchers contacted 3,780 landlords to see if they would accept tenants who intended to use vouchers to pay rent. For properties where vouchers were accepted, they then proceeded with further telephone and in-person tests.
“The voucher acceptance tests show clear evidence of outright denial of vouchers,” the researchers wrote.
Denial rates for voucher holders were found to be highest in Fort Worth, at 78 percent, and Los Angeles, at 76 percent. The denial rates in the other metro areas varied from 67 percent in Philadelphia, to 31 percent in Newark and 15 percent in Washington, D.C.
It is illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act for landlords to discriminate against renters based on factors like race, ethnicity, gender, disabilities, or family status. But the act’s protections do not extend to voucher holders.
Newark and Washington, D.C. are among the state and local jurisdictions around the U.S. that have laws, known as “source-of-income” protections, meant to bar property owners from discriminating against people planning to use vouchers to pay rent.
Philadelphia also has a source-of-income anti-discrimination statute, but neighboring Bucks County does not, the researchers note. Fort Worth and Los Angeles don’t have those kind of laws.
Housing choice vouchers, which are part of the Section 8 program, are designed to help cover rental costs for low-income families, while also giving them a chance to live where they want to. The voucher program is administered locally by public housing agencies, which receive federal funds from HUD.
A household with a voucher generally contributes either 30 percent of its income or a minimum sum of up to $50 for rent and utilities—whichever amount is higher. The voucher covers remaining rental costs up to a limit that local housing agencies set.
Figures published last year by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that 5.3 million people in 2.2 million households relied on the vouchers. Of those people, about 600,000 were elderly and 1.2 million were disabled, while 1 million of the households included children.
Between 9 and 25 percent of landlords across the five locations covered by the study said they would accept vouchers only under certain conditions or were unsure about their voucher policy.
Denials were more likely in communities with lower levels of poverty. The summary of the findings says that this suggests voucher holders who want to find housing in a place close to high-quality schools, jobs, and transportation could face greater degrees of rejection.
The authors of the study also said that high overall denial rates for voucher holders hindered their ability to analyze if and how race and ethnicity factored into how renters are treated.
An executive summary of the Urban Institute study was released Monday, with the full report expected out next month.
In May, HUD released a separate report prepared by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. That study, which involved interviews with 127 landlords and property managers in Baltimore, Cleveland and Dallas, found that they liked the dependability of voucher payments.
But they also found that inspections, and other interactions with housing authorities, were deterrents to landlord participation, and that between 21 and 45 percent of landlords viewed voucher tenants as worse than those not using vouchers.
“These studies tell us that we have a lot of work to do to engage more landlords, so our Housing Choice Voucher Program can offer real choice to the families we serve,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement on Monday, announcing the new voucher task force.
“We will be traveling the country to hear directly from landlords about how we can make this critical program more user friendly,” he added.
The department’s “landlord engagement campaign” will begin on Sept. 20 in Washington, D.C.
Future forums are planned for Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Salem, Oregon. The task force is expected to eventually provide policy recommendations on changes that could increase landlord participation in the voucher program.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.