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When a voucher doesn’t guarantee housing

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Sep 12, 2018 - 3:45:12 PM

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WASHINGTON—Melissa Simpson thought the hard part was over when she got approved for Section 8 Housing.

“I turned in all of my documents and then had to wait,” she told The Final Call. “That was the hard part I thought. Waiting for my name to come up and get approved.”

Approval for her took two years and when she finally got approved she was super excited.

“I was ready to start packing. I could finally move my family into a decent house big enough for me and my four kids. I wanted a house and a back yard. I wanted a nice neighborhood with good schools. I wanted out of this bad area and I wanted a new way of life,” she said.

“But that’s when the hard part really started. No one seemed to want to rent to me even though the rent was guaranteed with my voucher. I was so confused. I couldn’t understand what was going on. This was not supposed to be this difficult.”

The federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8 Housing, helps low income families afford decent, safe homes. In theory, voucher holders can move anywhere they can find an affordable home; however, in practice, landlords can severely constrain and restrict their housing choices. Landlords become the gatekeepers, deciding if and when they want to accept vouchers as payment.

The Urban Institute conducted a study of housing vouchers sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The project’s goals were to identify ways to measure differential treatment of renters who use housing vouchers, identify the types and patterns of rental housing discrimination against voucher holders, and measure the prevalence and extent of the discrimination. Their study found that searching for housing with vouchers is time consuming and frustrating. Many searches turn up short, and many landlords do not accept vouchers.

 “Our study shows that finding housing with a voucher is extremely difficult, from identifying an available unit and reaching landlords to finding landlords willing to accept vouchers to meeting with landlords to view available housing. The search required sifting through numerous advertisements, making several calls, and facing frequent rejection,” the study explained.

“This study reveals that many landlords refuse to accept vouchers, although voucher denial rates vary widely. Denial rates were highest in Fort Worth (78 percent) and Los Angeles (76 percent) and only somewhat lower in Philadelphia (67 percent). Rates were substantially lower in Newark (31 percent) and Washington, D.C. (15 percent). Rejection rates were higher in lower-poverty neighborhoods, suggesting that voucher holders who want to find housing in an ‘opportunity’ area—perhaps close to high-quality schools, jobs, and transportation—will face even more rejection.”

For Ms. Simpson, the search was long, and frustrating but had a happy ending. 

“Eventually I found someone willing to rent to me. That’s the good news. The bad news is it shouldn’t be this hard for people who are already struggling. Our rent is guaranteed. Don’t put a stigma on me just because I have a voucher and you think I won’t be a good tenant or whatever your reason is for turning down guaranteed rent,” she said.

“There are hardworking people like me who just need a chance to do better and when we get a chance don’t put another hurdle in our way with one rejection after another,” she added.