How to Fight Discrimination Against Housing Voucher Holders

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Local Tools to Address Housing Affordability: A State-by-State Analysis is the fifth annual report produced in partnership with the 49-state municipal leagues. This post is part of a series highlighting findings from this new report.

While the growing housing crisis stems from numerous factors, such as a housing shortage and lack of affordability, discrimination in the housing market has contributed to what is arguably the most important housing challenge: unequal access.

Although the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1968 protects people from housing discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, sex, disability and family status, thousands of discrimination complaints are filed each year by those who depend on housing vouchers. Since source of income is not protected by federal law, many cities and states have instituted additional fair housing laws to protect voucher holders.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP) is a federal assistance program created to help residents obtain affordable housing in the private market. Despite the financial assistance it provides, some housing providers do not want to accept vouchers because doing so requires them to work directly with housing agencies for rental payments, or because some vouchers require additional inspections. In other cases, voucher holders are discriminated against simply because they are perceived as bad tenants.

Discrimination faced by housing voucher holders has significant implications for access to safe, affordable housing. A 2018 Urban Institute study found that rejection rates of voucher holders were higher in lower-poverty neighborhoods, suggesting that voucher holders are often closed out of “opportunity” areas near high-quality schools, jobs and transportation.

Some states and cities have responded by classifying housing voucher holders as a protected class under source of income statutes in fair housing laws. This additional protection means that housing providers cannot legally refuse to rent based solely on a renter’s source of income.

Our analysis assessed states based on whether state fair housing laws address housing voucher holders as a protected class, and the extent to which cities are permitted to protect vouchers as a source of income:

  • State law protections (11 states and the District of Columbia)*: Housing voucher holders are a protected class under state fair housing law.
  • Permitted (14 states): Cities are permitted to extend protections to voucher holders via local fair housing ordinances.
  • Policy vacuum (23 states): Cities in states with neither state nor local protections but have no restrictions on local fair housing.
  • Preempted (2 states): Cities in states that expressly prohibit local fair housing.

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Evidence suggests that voucher non-discrimination laws are associated with substantial reductions in the number of property owners that reject voucher holders. This has led to greater affordability in more opportunity-rich areas. Our analysis revealed that 23 states currently do not have state nor local sources of income protections for housing voucher holders. However, for cities in these states, there are no explicit restrictions on local fair housing laws, and many cities choose to enact their own laws.

Denver is a good example. Although the state of Colorado does not have any housing voucher protections under its state fair housing law, earlier this year, the city of Denver implemented source of income protections for housing voucher holders under its local ordinance. The mayor’s office is also researching creating a fund to incentivize property owners to rent to voucher holders without wages. The fund would provide financial protection and compensation to property owners in the event the cost of tenant damages exceeded the amount of the damage deposit.

In both states where extending protections is permitted — like Colorado — and those in a policy vacuum, cities have an opportunity to create policies that limit discrimination towards voucher holders. Taking steps to support voucher holders could ultimately provide every local resident with access to safe, healthy and affordable housing.

*Note: Since publication of our report, New York passed legislation to protect voucher holders under its state fair housing law, bringing the total number of states with state law protections to 12 (plus the District of Columbia), and permitted states down to 13.

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About the Author: Rose Kim is a research associate in NLC’s Center for City Solutions.