Turning Tenants Away: How Source of Income Discrimination Legalizes Prejudice

“No part of said property shall be occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race.” Although it was common for property deeds since the 1920s to include stipulations like this, such acts of racial housing discrimination were legally outlawed in the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Today, these biases do persist, but in implicit ways that are more difficult to identify. However, one kind of explicit discrimination against qualified tenants is still deemed legal in most states. That discrimination is often seen in the form of advertisements saying “No Section 8.”

Source of income (SOI) discrimination is the widespread practice of refusing to rent to a prospective tenant based on the source of their lawful income, usually involving a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV). Section 8 is the federal government’s flagship rent-assistance program for low-income households, making this discrimination a pervasive barrier between low-income households and affordable housing. Even worse, SOI discrimination often serves as a proxy for implicit racial, socioeconomic, ability, and family-status discrimination already at work in the housing market.

Last February, SouthCoast Fair Housing (assisted by Brown University’s Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) released a report finding that tenants on federally-subsidized rent income could theoretically afford 34 percent of available Rhode Island housing. However, due to explicit discrimination from landlords against those who hold these vouchers, their actual selection fell to only 7 percent of the housing stock.

If that weren’t bad enough, Section 8 vouchers often expire within 90 days if an apartment willing to take them is not found. This can come after 5 to 8 years of being on a waiting list for that same voucher. In this way, source of income discrimination directly contributes to a shortage of affordable housing and increases the homeless population, which in turn brings a cascade of negative consequences. For example, 91 percent of homeless mothers will experience domestic abuse, and people experiencing homelessness are 3 to 6 times more likely to suffer from a serious illness or injury, not to mention the significant mental health ramifications.

In the public sphere, landlords give several excuses for refusing to rent to Section 8 voucher holders, including the paperwork burden involved or the fear that their property would not hold up to the required inspections. In reality, however, landlords more often act on harmful negative stereotypes. One Providence landlord I spoke to said that many of his colleagues wouldn’t rent to voucher holders “thinking they’d destroy the property.” In his experience, the process of getting rent from a Section 8 voucher is in fact rather simple, and some property owners actually prefer it “because it means they won’t have to track down tenants for their rent.” But others flatly refused to accept voucher holders, believing that they would bring domestic abuse and damage to the building, “especially if they’re a mom with kids or have a boyfriend.” Currently, 70 percent of Rhode Island voucher holders are families with children, 85 percent are households headed by women, and 20 percent are black. Discrimination against these groups is already widespread without needing a legal justification.

"But others flatly refused to accept voucher holders, believing that they would bring domestic abuse and damage to the building, ‘especially if they’re a mom with kids or have a boyfriend.’"

In another example, many apartment listings specify that the tenant needs to have an income of 3 times the monthly rent. A landlord who doesn’t want to make a building more accessible might tell a disabled or elderly apartment-seeker that SSI or retirement benefits are not income, and in that way circumvent existing housing discrimination laws. The rebuffed tenants would then have nowhere to turn for help. These examples illustrate how denying tenants based on their income level is often a proxy for otherwise illegal forms of discrimination.

So far, eleven states have passed laws prohibiting SOI discrimination, and Rhode Island is currently considering its own (H-7528). Passing this bill would protect Rhode Island’s low-income population and ensure that housing remains a human right. The Department of Housing and Urban Development found in a report that anti-SOI discrimination laws like this increase the success rates of voucher holders in finding homes, effectively reducing the homeless and housing-insecure populations.

This isn’t only a Rhode Island Issue, however. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, two out of every three HCV recipients lose their voucher before being able to find a home. In Oakland, California, only 19% of voucher holders found homes in 2015. In the future, Congress can, and must, protect these disadvantaged populations from discrimination and homelessness by adding source of income to the Fair Housing Act’s list of “protected categories,” which currently includes race, age, and gender identity. Fortunately, this is already in the works: Elizabeth Warren’s housing plan would include protections against SOI discrimination, and a bill specific to this issue was introduced with bipartisan support by Senators Tim Kaine and Orrin Hatch last November. However, these bills will need public attention and support in order to gain any momentum.

It is important to keep in mind that any discrimination law is difficult to enforce, as implicit discrimination can be hard to prove in court. Therefore, both Rhode Island and the federal government must take further steps in order to ensure the successful implementation of this law. Such steps could include clarifying and simplifying the Section 8 process for landlords, putting accessible discrimination complaint systems in place, and tasking non-profits with testing landlords for discriminatory practices. Protections specifically for veterans would also be helpful, as VA housing benefits are also affected by SOI discrimination. Empowering low-income households to take advantage of these resources would be a challenge, but some states have mitigated this by paying the attorney fees of successful civil discrimination cases. In any case, outlawing SOI discrimination alone would not be enough; extensive effort needs to go into identifying violations of such a law in order for it to be effective.

Rhode Island, and the United States in general, cannot condemn race, age, or ability discrimination by landlords while permitting source of income discrimination, because they often produce the same results. Congress recognized that access to a safe and affordable home is a human right in 1968 when they passed the Fair Housing Act, and again in 1980 when they started the Section 8 program. Property owners must be prevented from denying people this basic right, so that the underprivileged might take a step away from the margins of society and toward empowerment.

Photo: “Housing Discrimination

About the Author

Indigo Funk '22 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Indigo can be reached at indigo_funk@brown.edu

SUGGESTED ARTICLES