Bramson: Voucher discrimination is just another closed door

    If you’ve ever found yourself in a housing hunt, you’ve probably noticed online or paper ads stating in the fine print (or upfront nowadays): No Section 8. Not accepting Section 8 vouchers at this time. Not a Section 8 building.

    Those same listings might as well read “very poor people need not apply.”

    While to some this has just become another sad reality in the ever-expanding number of closed doors for many of our residents, the fact is that excluding someone because they have a housing subsidy is nothing more than a form of overt and blatant discrimination that has somehow managed to endure out in the open for decades.

    First a bit of history. The concept of federal housing assistance actually goes all the way back to the Great Depression, when Congress passed the U.S. Housing Act in 1937 to improve living conditions for low-income families. Over the years, the Act has morphed and evolved, with Section 8 being added in 1974 to help tenants reduce the percentage of their earnings they spent on housing. Today, more than 2 million Americans receive this assistance, allowing households to pay no more than approximately 30% of their income on rent, creating the opportunity to spend money on food, health care, transportation and other necessities to keep people stably housed healthy, and off the streets.

    In Santa Clara County, there are nearly 15,000 vouchers for renters. Who are they? A variety of poor people including frail seniors living on a fixed income, mentally and physically disabled adults unable to secure full-time employment, and hard-working families of color trying to keep their children healthy and housed.

    Even worse off are the 4,000 folks on the waiting list for vouchers. More than 80% of those households are currently earning 30% or less than the area median income and living in extreme poverty. As a whole, this group represents some of the most vulnerable people in our community at greatest risk for housing instability and, without help, homelessness.

    But the tool that used to be a golden ticket, a way out, a chance at finally finding a place to call home, is now becoming just a meaningless piece of paper and another dead end. One thousand voucher holders are tirelessly searching the listings right now in our community, but are being categorically shut out simply because they are receiving some extra support to pay rents that are already too high for almost all of us.

    Landlords counter that it’s not about the people, it’s about the process. Vouchers are challenging to deal with, there are too many rules and requirements, the contracts and regulations are difficult to understand, and it’s too burdensome overall.

    The trade-off, however, is contractually guaranteed rental payments at or even above fair market rates from a federally funded agency, where property owners can still screen, select and evict tenants the same as anyone else. The only difference is where the money is coming from. That alone should not be a reason why someone can or can’t at least apply for housing, especially when it relates directly to the economic status of people in a given community.

    In August, the San Jose City Council will consider a proposal to adopt a source of income discrimination ordinance. Like many other cities throughout the state and country, the ordinance would require landlords to consider anyone with a voucher for available housing as they would with any other prospective tenant. While such laws can be difficult to tightly enforce, several studies have shown that similar ordinances in other communities have increased the number of voucher holders actually able to find homes.

    Moreover, as a policy statement, this ordinance would forcefully demand that we stop normalizing this egregious discrimination now. No more ads in the papers that deny people the right to even be considered, checked application boxes that immediately screen folks out, or automatic rejections. Over the years, we’ve gone to great lengths to prevent housing discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, and religion. We need to take the next step forward and make sure desperate need isn’t a permissible reason to say no.

    San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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