You are on page 1of 19

Still in Search of Decent Housing

A Five Year Reflection on Discrimination Against Housing Choice


Voucher Holders in the District of Columbia
E
M
B
A
R
G
O
E
D

A Report by the Equal Rights Center


2011
E
M
B
Still in Search of Decent Housing
A
R
A Five Year Reflection on Discrimination Against Housing
Choice Voucher Holders in the District of Columbia

G
O
This report, issued on the fifth anniversary of the ERC’s report highlighting the
plight of Housing Choice Voucher holders in the District, is dedicated to all those
committed to equal housing opportunity in our nation’s capital.

E
The Equal Rights Center

11 Dupont Circle, N.W.


Suite 450
D
Washington, D.C. 20036

www.equalrightscenter.org

April 2011

© Equal Rights Center - 2011 All Rights Reserved


E Table of Contents

M
B
About the Author 2

Executive Summary 3

A
The Washington D.C. Housing Market

The Housing Choice Voucher Program


5

R
Protections Against Source of Income

Discrimination in Washington D.C.


10

Project Overview

Project Methodology
G 11

13

Test Results

Conclusion
O 14

16

E
D
About the Author

E The Equal Rights Center

M Originally formed in 1983, the Equal Rights Center (the

“ERC”) is a national non-profit civil rights organization dedicated to

B promoting equal opportunity in housing, employment, public ac-

commodations and government services. With more than 2,200 members in 42 states and the District

A
of Columbia, the ERC uses a comprehensive approach to advance civil rights, including counseling, edu-

cation and outreach, research and investigation, advocacy and enforcement. Working in the District

and across the United States for nearly 30 years, the ERC has developed an expertise in civil rights

R
testing that has been recognized by federal and state governments, civil rights organizations, and the

courts.

G
O
E
D

www.equalrightscenter.org 2
Executive Summary

E
In addition to federal civil rights protections, residents of the District of Columbia benefit from

M
the D.C. Human Rights Act (the “DCHRA”), one of the most expansive human rights acts in the country.

Building upon the seven federally protected classes (race, color, religion, national origin, gender, famili-

al status and disability), the DCHRA

B
offers protections to twelve addition-

al groups including “source of in-

come.” Under the DCHRA, the Dis-


A
trict’s landlords and property manag-

R
ers are prohibited from discrimi-

nating against an individual because

he or she wants to pay rent with vari-

ous types of funds, including govern-


G
ment subsidies such as Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) Vouchers (“HCV”).

O
Currently assisting more than two million American families, the Housing Choice Voucher Pro-

gram (“HCVP”) is the largest federal housing subsidy program. The HCVP allows qualifying families to

E
obtain market-rate housing in locations of their choice. Because HCV’s are “portable,” they promote

diversity with respect to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, and allow families to move into

D
neighborhoods close to jobs, better schools, and necessary services.

More than five years ago, the ERC began conducting a groundbreaking testing investigation

consisting of more than 100 tests of 75 housing providers to determine compliance with the source of

income protections of the DCHRA, and in 2005 published, In Search of Decent Housing in the D.C. Met-

ropolitan Area: The Affordable Housing Crisis for Section 8 Voucher Holders. This report documented a

staggering 61% rate of discrimination against voucher holders—including a 26% rate of outright re-

fusals of their vouchers and a 35% rate of encountering limitations that would bar most voucher

Still in Search of Decent Housing 3


holders from renting available units.1 In the following five years, through a program of education, out-

E
reach and enforcement, the ERC reached more than 20 agreements with D.C. landlords and property

managers to open more than 15,000 apartments to HCV holders.

M
In 2010, the ERC undertook a second testing investigation of District housing providers to de-

termine if compliance with source of income protections had improved. The ERC conducted 91 tests

B
consisting of 42 management companies and 38 landlords in all four quadrants of the District. Alt-

hough compliance with DCHRA source of income protections has improved dramatically, the recent

testing found that 45% of people seeking to rent housing with an HCV continue to face discrimina-

A
tion—with 15% being met by outright refusals to accept vouchers, and another 30% faced with some

kind of discriminatory barrier to the use of their vouchers.

R
This revisiting of source of income discrimination in the nation’s capital demonstrates that the

plight of HCV holders has, in fact, improved over the last five years. However, much remains to be

G
done. When nearly every other attempt to use a voucher (45%) is met with some type of discriminato-

ry barrier, our fair housing agencies—both governmental and private—are not protecting this vulnera-

O
ble population. We must do more.

E
D

1
This report is available at http://www.equalrightscenter.org/site/DocServer/Report.pdf?docID=154

www.equalrightscenter.org 4
The Washington D.C. Housing Market

E
Between 2000 and 2010, the population of the

M
District of Columbia grew by 5.2 percent to 601,723

people.2 This rapid population increase, combined

with the real estate housing crisis, a tight economy,

B
and a generally high cost of living in the District, has

created a crisis of insufficient “affordable” housing.

A
Affordable housing is most often defined as housing

that does not exceed more than 30 percent of total

R
household income. In the District, it is reported that

approximately 40 percent of D.C. households spend

more than 30 percent of their income on housing

costs, and approximately 20 percent of D.C. house-

holds experience “severe” housing affordability prob-


G
lems—spending half or more of their income on housing.3
O
The average sales price of a single family home in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area as of

E
December, 2010 was $329,500.4 Due to these high costs, the only alternative for most low-income

families is rental housing. The supply of affordable rental housing in the District, however, is also lim-

D
ited. Since 2000, Washington, D.C. has experienced the 5th highest growth in rent, outpacing cities

such as Los Angeles and New York,5 resulting in raising the average fair market rent for a one bedroom

2
See U.S. Census Bureau, “2010 Data: Population growth.” Available at http://2010.census.gov/2010census/
data/
3
D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, “Nowhere to Go: As D.C. Housing Costs Rise, Residents Are Left with Fewer Affordable
Housing Options,” (February 2010). Available at: http://D.C.fpi.org/nowhere-to-go-as-D.C.-housing-costs-rise-
residents-are-left-with-fewer-affordable-housing-options
4
See National Association of Realtors, “Existing Home Sales for December 2010.” Available at http://
www.realtor.org/research/research/ehsdata
5
D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, “Nowhere to Go: As D.C. Housing Costs Rise, Residents Are Left with Fewer Affordable
Housing Options,” (February 2010). Available at: http://D.C.fpi.org/nowhere-to-go-as-D.C.-housing-costs-rise-
residents-are-left-with-fewer-affordable-housing-options

Still in Search of Decent Housing 5


apartment to $1,318.6 This increase in rent is compounded by a shrinking stock of rental housing in the

E
District. Since 2000, the general rental market has shrunk by 19 percent , and more acutely, there has

been a drop of almost 30 percent in the low-cost rental market.7

M
In addition to these rising costs, poverty continues to rise. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute con-

cluded that, in 2010, the District experienced its largest single-year increase in poverty since 1995, esti-

B
mating that the District has 106,500 residents —one sixth of the city’s residents—living at or below the

poverty line ($21,800 for a family of four in 2009).8 This is 11,000 more individuals living in poverty

than in the prior year alone, an increase of almost 12 percent.

A
Nowhere is this intersection of poverty and the high cost of decent housing more critical and

R
more painful than among HCV holders. By way of comparison, the median income for a family of four

in the District was reported in 2008 to be more than $94,000,9 yet, according to the D.C. Housing Au-

thority in 2008, nearly all the applicants for housing assistance, including the Housing Choice Voucher

G
Program, had incomes of less than $30,000 for a family of four. 10

O
E
D
6
See National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Out of Reach 2010.” Available at http://www.nlihc.org/oor/
oor2010/
7
See D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, “Nowhere to Go: As D.C. Housing Costs Rise, Residents Are Left with Fewer
Affordable Housing Options,” (February 2010). Available at http://D.C.fpi.org/nowhere-to-go-as-D.C.-housing-
costs-rise-residents-are-left-with-fewer-affordable-housing-options
8
Id.
9
See Yolanda, Woodlee, Washington Post, “Agency is Updating Housing Aid Wait List.” Available at http://
www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/15/AR2008011503507_pf.html
10
Id.

www.equalrightscenter.org 6
The Housing Choice Voucher Program

E
One valuable tool used to ameliorate the
“I have had potential land-
M
critical shortage of affordable housing is the Hous-

ing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP).11 Initiated in lords scare my children half
1974, the HCVP is a federal program for assisting

B
to death looking them over
very low-income families, the elderly, and people

with disabilities to afford decent, safe, and sani- as if they were crimi-

A
tary housing in the private market.12 The HCVP is

administered by the U.S. Department of Housing


nals. Wanting to raise your
children in a decent

R
and Urban Development (HUD), and is the largest

federal housing subsidy program, assisting more neighborhood with good


than 2 million American families each year.13 With- schools should not
out these vouchers, many families and individuals

would be forced to live in unsafe housing or pay


G be belittling and painful for

O
more than half of their income for rent.14 them or me.” -

Because HCVs are “portable,” i.e., they are

not tied to designated housing properties or units,

the HCVP helps families move from substandard E


-ERC member and voucher holder

D
housing and promotes diversity with respect to

race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status by permitting families to gain access to a wider range of

11
The regulations that govern this program may be found at 24 CFR Part 982.
12
See U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Housing Choice Voucher Fact Sheet. Available at
http://www.hud.gov/offices/pih/programs/hcv/about/fact_sheet.cfm
13
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Resident Characteristics Report, at https://pic.hud.gov,
accessed September 29, 2008, shows 2,208,802 voucher units under contract between HUD and program admin-
istrators.
14
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research, “Affordable
Housing Needs 2005: Report to Congress,” (2007).

Still in Search of Decent Housing 7


neighborhoods than they could

E
have reached without the vouch-

er.15

income
Under
M
the

households
HCVP,

receive
low-

B
voucher through their local public

housing agency. A voucher repre-

sents a direct payment from the

housing authority to the landlord

for all or a portion of monthly rent.


A
HCV’s may be used to rent any

apartment, single-family home, or R


G
townhouse provided: (1) the physi-

cal condition of the housing meets

federally-established quality stand-

ards, and (2) the total monthly rent

is no more than the rental payment


O
E
standard established for that area by the local housing authority. HCV holders are required to contrib-

ute 30 percent of their own monthly income toward rent, with the remainder of the monthly rent paid

D
by the local public housing agency directly to the landlord. Local public housing agencies may also pro-

vide participating families with additional financial assistance to help cover monthly utility expenses.

In 2010, the maximum HCVP payment standards in the District reflected the rapidly rising cost

of housing in the nation’s capital. Although factors such as family size and disability affect the size of

15
Martha M. Galvez, “What Do We Know About Housing Choice Voucher Program Location Outcomes?” (August
2010). Available at http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/412218-housing-choice-voucher.pdf
See also: Austin Turner, Margery. Popkin, Susan J. Rawlings, Lynette, “Public Housing and the Legacy of Segrega-
tion” at p. 79, ch. 3 – Moving to Neighborhoods of Opportunity: Overcoming Segregation and Discrimination in
Today’s Housing Markets.

www.equalrightscenter.org 8
units for which a voucher holder is eligible, Chart 1 summarizes the increase in maximum rent qualify-

E
ing for the HCVP in the District in 2010 as compared to 2005:

Unit Size 2005 Payment Standard 2010 Payment Standard

M
Efficiency

1 bedroom
Up to $915

Up to $1045
Up to $1272

Up to $1450

B
2 bedroom

3 bedroom
Up to $1187

Up to $1537
Up to $1643

Up to $2120

Chart 1
A
R
Though HCV holders are not restricted to where they may seek affordable housing within their

jurisdiction, the HCV will expire if not used within a limited period of time.16 If unable to use an HCV

G
within the allotted time, the voucher expires and the family goes to the end of the waiting list to obtain

a new voucher.17 In 2011, information provided by the D.C. Housing Authority confirmed that, in the

District, there were 10,596 families being served by the HCVP and 34,717 on the waitlist. 18

O
E
D
16
Voucher holders in the District have up to 180 days to use vouchers (an initial 60 day period and up to 120 days
in extensions). Data provided by: D.C. Housing Authority’s Dena Michaelson, Director Public Affairs and Commu-
nications, April 2011.
17
Baran, Madeleine, The New Standard, “Economic Hardship Causing Drastic Increase in U.S. Homeless-
ness.” (September 12, 2004). Available at http://newstandardnews.net/content/index.cfm/items/978
18
While the D.C. Housing Authority advises that it does not keep information on the average length of time an
individual remains on its waitlist before obtaining a voucher, it has been reported that tenants in our nation’s
capital can wait an average more than six years to receive a voucher. Data Provided by: D.C. Housing Authority’s
Dena Michaelson, Director Public Affairs and Communications.

Still in Search of Decent Housing 9


Protections Against Source of Income Discrimination

E
in Washington D.C.

M
Discrimination against HCV holders can have a profoundly adverse effect on the housing choices

that are available to home-seekers, and can perpetuate patterns of racial, ethnic, and economic segre-
19
gation. Far too often, a housing voucher is all that stands between a family and homelessness. While

B
not protected at the federal level, discrimination against a person participating in the HCVP is outlawed

by civil and human rights laws in more than 13 states and in 30 local jurisdictions, including the District

A
of Columbia and several jurisdictions in Maryland.20 In the District, housing discrimination based on a

person’s “source of income,” including HCVs, has been prohibited under the D.C. Human Rights Act, D.C.

R
Code 2-1401.02 (29), since 1977.21

Despite these protections, some landlords and property managers continue to refuse to rent to

G
HCV holders, because of a lack of awareness of their responsibilities under the law, stereotypes about

the households who participate in public assistance programs, or as a proxy for discrimination based on

other protected demographics such as race or familial status.22 According to HUD, nationally, 62% of

O
voucher holders are designated as racial minorities (42% of voucher holders identified as Black, non-

Hispanic), and 48% of voucher holder households are female-headed with children.23 In D.C., these de-

19
E
mographics are even more pronounced with 77.9% of voucher holders designated as racial minorities.24

See Poverty & Race Research Action Council, “Keeping the Promise: Preserving and Enhancing Housing Mobility

D
in the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program.” Available at http://www.prrac.org/pdf/AppendixB-
Feb2010.pdf
20
Center for Policy Alternatives, “Source of Income Discrimination.” Available at http://www.cfpa.org/issues/
issue.cfm/issue/SourceofIncomeDiscrimination.xml.
21
Even in jurisdictions without source of income protections, landlords participating in the federal Low-Income
Housing Tax Credit Program, which provides tax incentives to investors who develop low-income housing, are
prohibited from discriminating against potential tenants because they have HCV’s. See, e.g., 26 CFR § 1.42-5
22
Thabault, Isabelle M. and Platts-Mills, Eliza T., Poverty & Race Research Action Council, “Discrimination Against
Participants in the Housing Choice Voucher Program: An Enforcement Strategy.” Available at http://
www.prrac.org/full_text.php?text_id=1071&item_id=9757&newsletter_id=85&header=Economic+%
2F+Community+Development
23
See Department of Housing and Urban Development, “A Picture of Subsidized Households-2008.” Available at
http://www.huduser.org/portal/picture2008/index.html
24
Housing Choice Voucher Holders by Race/Ethnicity, 2000. Available at http://diversitydata-archive.org/Data/
Rankings/Show.aspx?ind=165

www.equalrightscenter.org 10
Project Overview

E
In 2005, the ERC conducted a large scale testing investigation of 100 D.C. rental properties to

M
determine the existence and extent of discrimination against voucher holders when seeking rental

housing. Trained ERC testers, posing as HCV holders, inquired about the availability of housing and

gathered information about the policies and practices of housing providers with respect to the ac-

B
ceptance of HCV’s. The 2005 ERC report, In Search of Decent Housing in the D.C. Metropolitan Area:

The Affordable Housing Crisis for Section 8 Voucher Holders, detailed its findings—a 61% rate of dis-

A
crimination against HCV holders.25 The ERC followed this study with a similar study in the D.C. sub-

urbs in Montgomery County, MD, finding a 15% rate

R
of discrimination against HCV holders. 26

In the five years since release of its first report

G
documenting this discrimination, the ERC has engaged

in a concerted campaign to remedy the effects of past

source of income discrimination and to prevent future

discrimination. This campaign utilized a multifaceted

approach, including:
O
 Directly collaborating with the D.C. Office

of Human Rights in both education and


E
outreach efforts and administrative en-

forcement efforts;
D
The ERC’s 2008 Report:
A Step Away From Homelessness—Housing
Choice Voucher Holders Denied Housing in
 Conducting scores of events reaching out Montgomery County, MD

to HCV holders to teach them about the

25
The full text of this report is available at, http://www.equalrightscenter.org/site/DocServer/Report.pdf?
docID=154
26
See Equal Rights Center, “A Step Away From Homelessness—Housing Choice Voucher Holders Denied Housing
in Montgomery County, MD” (2008). Available at http://www.equalrightscenter.org/site/DocServer/
Montgomery_County_Section_8.pdf?docID=150

Still in Search of Decent Housing 11


protections available to them;
“My children and I are
E
treated like second class
 Developing fair housing training courses

for landlords and property managers to teach

M
citizens every day.
Sometimes I wonder if there
them their responsibilities under the civil

rights laws;

B
are any landlords out there
that will treat us equally.”
 Commencing more than 20 enforcement

actions to require individual landlords and

A
property managers to comply with the
-ERC member and voucher holder DCHRA;

R  Publicizing rental units available to vouch-

er holders through a network of affordable housing agencies; and

G
Negotiating agreements with no less than 20 landlords to make more than 15,000

apartment units available to voucher holders.

O
The ERC’s 2010 testing investigation, consistent in methodology and scope to its 2005 investi-

gation, tested 91 rental properties, consisting of 42 management companies and 38 landlords in all

E
four quadrants of Washington D.C. As in 2005, the 2010 study defined “discriminatory treatment” as:

(1) the refusal to accept housing vouchers, (2) limiting the use of vouchers, (3) providing different

terms and conditions for voucher holders than for non-voucher holder applicants, or (4) imposing re-

D
quirements that would effectively bar most voucher holders looking for rental housing.

www.equalrightscenter.org 12
Project Methodology

E
Using the pay-

M
ment standards set by the

D.C. Housing Authority,

the ERC compiled a list of

B
testable properties com-

prised of one, two and

three bedroom apart-

ments in the District. A


R
Over the course of the

study, ERC staff periodical-

ly re-evaluated and updated this list to ensure geographic diversity and to protect against repeat

G
testing of housing providers. As home seekers’ reliance on the Internet as a resource for housing

listings has increased, the ERC’s search for testable properties placed an emphasis on online advertis-

ing, particularly on the website “Craigslist.”


O
After a property was identified and its rental rates confirmed to be within the payment standards, an

E
“advance call” was placed to ensure that the property (or units within the property) was available and

priced as advertised. In each test, trained ERC testers were provided with a detailed profile including

D
specific personal and financial characteristics—income, household size, and rental history—designed to

realistically reflect a HCV holder in Washington, D.C. Each test assignment also contained a list of ques-

tions for the tester to ask the housing provider in order for the ERC to determine the treatment of po-

tential HCV renters.

Still in Search of Decent Housing 13


Test Results

E
The ERC’s 2010 testing investigation re-

M
vealed that 45% of the time (41 out of 91 tests)

HCV holders were subjected to at least one form

of discriminatory treatment—outright refusal to

B
accept vouchers, limiting the use of the voucher,

imposing different terms or conditions for HCV

A
holders, or imposing limitations that would effec-

tively bar HCV holders from obtaining the housing.

R
While the most common notion of discrimination is

that of an outright refusal to accept an HCV, more

subtle forms of discrimination, such as differential

treatment and unreturned phone calls about hous-

ing availability, also create very real barriers to


G

O
equal housing opportunity. In its 2010 testing, the ERC documented:

Outright Refusals: In 15% of the tests (14 out of 91), landlords or property managers re-

E
fused outright to accept vouchers. In one blatant example, the housing provider immedi-

ately hung up the phone when the tester asked if he or she could use a HCV to pay rent. In

D
another instance, the ERC tester posing as an HCV holder was told that the landlord “did

not believe in vouchers.” Another housing provider refused to accept an HCV because he

was unwilling to “make any changes to his leasing process” that would give HCV holders

the opportunity to rent the property.

 Differing Terms and Conditions: In 9% of the tests (8 out of 91), the ERC’s investigation

showed differential (and adverse) treatment of voucher holders. In two instances, testers

were told, although vouchers were accepted at the building, they were only accepted for

www.equalrightscenter.org 14
unit sizes other than those currently advertised as available. In three instances, testers

E
were told, contrary to voucher guidelines, the voucher must cover the entire rental

amount. In one instance, a tester was told the apartment building had reached its “quota”

M
of voucher holders, and would not accept any more. Finally, one property manager re-

peatedly emphasized the “thorough” review he would do with the tester’s previous land-

lord, citing his belief that voucher holders have a propensity to “tear up the property.”

 B
Income Limits: In 21% of the tests (19 of 91) the tester was informed of an income or

credit requirement which would effectively bar any and all voucher holders from renting

A
the advertised unit. In one extreme case, one landlord renting a one bedroom apartment

for $1,300 a month (well within the HCV rental payment standard of $1,450 per month)

R
imposed a $64,000 income requirement on potential tenants—in effect, creating an abso-

lute bar to all HCV holders (whose average income is only $30,000).

G
O
E
D
Chart 2
Overall, 45% of the test calls resulted in at least one form of discriminatory treatment.
Testers were told 15% of the time that vouchers were not accepted as a form of rent payment under any
circumstances. In 30% of the test calls, housing providers noted limitations that would bar most voucher
holders from renting available units.

Still in Search of Decent Housing 15


Conclusion

E
“We may be in a home
that is way too small, but Housing Choice Voucher holders represent

M
a particularly vulnerable community. Living at the
the voucher moved my
intersection of poverty, race, ethnicity, disability,
family into a different and ever-rising housing costs, in many instances

B
area. It is much more im- being able to actually use a voucher, free from dis-

crimination, is all that stands between a family and


portant to me that my chil-
dren go to better schools A homelessness.

In the last five years, the ERC has worked to

that will create more op-


portunities for better lives
R remediate source of income discrimination in the

nation’s capital, with a successful reduction in this

G
type of discrimination. However, much more re-
for them.” mains to be done. Equal housing opportunity can
-ERC member and voucher holder only be achieved through the continued vigilance of

O
housing and civil rights activists and government

authorities. With this report, the ERC hopes to demonstrate the persistence of source of income dis-

E
crimination, and to inspire more advocates to work with the ERC in order to completely eradicate this

form of discrimination from our nation’s capital.

www.equalrightscenter.org 16
E
M
B
A
R
G
O
E
D

Still in Search of Decent Housing 17