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Housing Voucher Discimination

How Real Estate Licensees Can Avoid Housing Voucher Discrimination

The Federal government’s Housing Choice Voucher Program assists very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford safe, decent, and sanitary privately-owned rental housing. In certain circumstances, a Public Housing Agency (PHA) will approve a family to use their voucher to purchase a modest home.

Around 2.2 million households are part of the program. Participants have a responsibility to find their own housing. However, the program only works if private landlords agree to lease their property to voucher holders. 

Real estate licensees who work in property management need to avoid housing voucher discrimination and also beware of Fair Housing Act non-compliance. Because if you discriminate against a family wishing to use a housing voucher and there are protections in place in your locality, you could find yourself facing a lawsuit. 

Here’s what to watch out for and some tips to ensure you comply with the law…

Federal, State and Local Laws and Regulations

While Federal law does not offer protection for all tenants from discrimination, there are some limited exceptions. Protections are in place for Housing Choice Voucher families for units funded under certain federally-funded housing programs, including: the HOME Program, Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program, National Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund. 

There are also several other Federal protections and regulations. An increasing number of states and localities have also enacted laws to encourage housing voucher acceptance. The Poverty and Race Research Action Council maintains a list of all Federal, State and Local laws prohibiting source-of-income discrimination in the housing market. This is a useful resource for real estate licensees to check what measures are in place in your locality. 

Real estate licensees and property managers also need to be aware of and comply with the Fair Housing Act. This legislation prohibits discrimination based on race, color, nation of origin, religion, sex/gender, familial status, and disability. The Act applies to all areas of housing — including renting. 

Recent Real-Life Cases of Housing Voucher Discrimination

In May 2022, Inman reported that an undercover sting by a nonprofit organization, Housing Rights Initiative, resulted in a Fair Housing lawsuit involving 120 companies in New York City. The lawsuit alleges that real estate brokers and property owners told renters at risk of homelessness that their housing vouchers would not be accepted or discouraged them from applying. The case is pending litigation. 

In 2019, a woman in Boston, Massachusetts was seeking a rental for her adult son, who has a disability. She contacted a broker and asked if her son could use a Section 8 voucher. The case was referred to the Attorney General’s Office, because the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination found probable cause the woman’s son had been illegally discriminated against because of his disability and source of income. 

The Attorney General’s office alleged the woman was told the property owner would not consider housing voucher tenants. The broker claimed they forwarded the rental application to the owner, but later the woman discovered this did not happen. The case was settled and the broker agreed to pay $15,000 to the plaintiff. The broker also agreed to undertake Fair Housing training and add affirmative Fair Housing statements to their advertising that was inclusive and encouraged renters with housing vouchers/subsidies to apply.

Tips to Avoid Housing Voucher Discrimination

Be aware of the relevant laws in your state

Licensees and property managers should keep updated on the latest news about laws and regulations relating to housing vouchers. You should also keep in mind that, even if there are no laws in your locality protecting renters against housing voucher discrimination,  discrimination on this basis should still be avoided. There are very fine lines with discrimination — renters may still sue you or the landlord claiming they have been discriminated against, because they belong to one of the protected classes under the Fair Housing Act. 

Seek out extra training and education opportunities

Does your brokerage run regular team trainings on issues such as housing discrimination and other high-risk areas of real estate? Why not put forward housing voucher discrimination as your next team training topic? Otherwise, look out for professional development and learning opportunities with your local REALTORS® Association or professional network. Continuous learning, education and discussions with others in your team can help to crystallize best practices and mitigate the risk of a costly lawsuit. 

Consider what other practices make it difficult for housing voucher holders

It’s not just housing voucher discrimination that can put decent housing out of reach for prospective tenants. High security deposits, application fees and specific credit score requirements can also put properties out of reach for renters at risk of homelessness. 

Most importantly, don’t discourage housing voucher holders from applying for a rental property. A housing voucher is a source of income and should be recognized as such.

Review your practices and identify areas for improvement

Housing discrimination is not always obvious, but  just because you’re not getting many complaints about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Many tenants are so used to housing discrimination that they don’t report it, or they’re unaware they can report it. 

Review each of the steps you take when leasing a property and consider how you communicate with applicants, what you say to them, and how you can improve to avoid any potential discrimination. For example, DON’T SAY:

  • “Housing vouchers aren’t accepted in this building.”
  • “You might be better off looking at another neighborhood instead of this building.”
  • “I wouldn’t recommend applying because the property owner will probably reject your application because of the housing voucher.”
  • “There are lots of other families like yours living down the street in another building which might be a better fit.”

And, if you say you will pass on an application to the property owner, make sure you do!

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