More than 17,000 low-income families in Philadelphia have vouchers subsidized by the federal government that help them to pay their rent and, ultimately, get out of high-crime and low-income neighborhoods.
Of course, that assumes landlords and property owners in this city work alongside them. A quick look through Craigslist shows those unwilling to do so.
And according to Philadelphia housing ordinances, it’s completely illegal.
Known as the Housing Choice Voucher program, or more commonly “Section 8,” low-income families across America can apply to have their housing partially subsidized by the federal government with the hope of one day getting out of areas with concentrated poverty.
We’re not the only city with landlords who don’t accept Section 8 vouchers. WBEZ in Chicago found that some property owners were noting in their ads that they don’t accept the vouchers. Philadelphia apparently has the same problem. Hundreds of properties here are marked by realtors and landlords who don’t want Section 8 voucher holders, and anyone can see this by searching phrases like “no section 8” or “not a section 8 property.”
But advertising this, according to the executive director of the city’s Fair Housing Commission, is breaking a 35-year-old city law and considered a form of discrimination no different than advertising one doesn’t accept a certain race.
“Just having someone denied housing based on their voucher, that is a violation of our law,” director Rue Landau said. “But even putting out the advertisement is also a violation of our law, and we welcome anybody to send those advertisements to our office or let us know where they are and we will take action against those landlords.”
Section 8 and discrimination
Today, housing discrimination is most often in the news as it relates to the LGBT community which, according to national studies, faces high rates of housing discrimination in terms of being turned away from properties. Philadelphia banned this type of discrimination, but it’s not illegal statewide.
But housing discrimination can take many forms, and one of the lesser-known forms of housing discrimination is called “source of income.” In Philadelphia, a law was adopted in 1980 as part of the Fair Practices Ordinance and requires that landlords and property owners cannot deny someone housing based on where the money comes from if it’s legal means: child support, alimony, and yes, section 8 vouchers.
In order to accept the vouchers, landlords must go through a process of paperwork, training and an inspection. And many don’t want to deal with the hassle.
The Housing Choice Voucher Program, AKA Section 8 because of where it is in the federal Housing Act, works like this: Low-income families can apply with local authorities like the Philadelphia Housing Authority to, instead of apply to live in housing projects, pay a portion of their rent (usually 30 percent of their overall income) and the subsidy will make up the rest up to the Fair Market Rent price. In fiscal year 2015 in Philadelphia, Fair Market Rent is $1,156 for a two-bedroom home and less than $1,000 for a one-bedroom.
According to the Philadelphia Housing Authority, nearly 18,000 households are in the Housing Choice Voucher program and in the last year, the authority has added an additional 2,500 households to the program here in the city.
But the HUD-funded federal subsidy has come under scrutiny lately for failing to do what it originally intended to: De-concentrate poverty and get families into neighborhoods with lower crime rates, better schools and more job opportunities. Landlords in some neighborhoods who say they don’t accept section 8 subsidies are aiding that.
Craigslist may be making it easier.
Where they’re not accepted
The realtors and landlords who posted Craigslist ads that explicitly stated they would not accept Section 8 housing vouchers stand to be fined hundreds or thousands of dollars based on how many ads they’ve posted and whether or not the Fair Housing Commission would find them in violation of local laws. This type of violation and punishment isn’t yet common in Philly, Landau said, but landlords in other states have been fined before for posting Craigslist ads that discriminate based on source of income.
The owners we reached out to who posted such ads either didn’t respond to inquiries or didn’t want to speak with Billy Penn about why it was posted. So here’s a look at where the ads are coming from, based on Craigslist ads that included the phrase “no section 8.” A note: Some of the properties did not have specific addresses, only the block of where they are located.
Though the ads span most of the city, it’s easy to see where the majority are not: North Philadelphia. In fact, many Craigslist ads from low-income areas of North Philly that can be found on the website specifically target Section 8 voucher holders, a practice that some have said defeats the purpose of the vouchers.
“The whole reason that HUD started the program for Housing Choice Vouchers was to make sure that people would be allowed to live in decent, affordable housing in diverse communities throughout the city,” Landau said. “We don’t want to limit people to certain areas of the city, especially where we have areas of concentrated poverty and not enough resources and services.”
The ‘administrative burden’
Part of it could be the organization it takes to actually accept a Housing Choice voucher as a form of payment from the government. According to the Housing Authority, landlords and property owners in the city must attend a mandatory briefing session and a required training certification program. In addition, they’ve got to fill out a series of paperwork and documentation that includes tax forms, housing deeds and other records.
Then, landlords must pass a housing quality inspection by an inspector with the Philadelphia Housing Authority before they can be approved to accept section 8 voucher holders as tenants. Despite all this, the Fair Housing Commission says the process isn’t an excuse to advertise you won’t accept tenants only because of their source of income.
“The way we see this as the commission,” Landau said, “is that the negative effects of discriminating against a whole class of poor people in Philadelphia far outweigh the administrative burden on landlords.”
Landau said anyone who has been turned away from housing based on their status as a Housing Choice voucher holder — or sees an advertisement claiming that a landlord would do so — can contact the city’s Commission on Human Relations and file a complaint. From there, the commission will investigate the complaint and hold a hearing, then levy a fine if it finds a property owner is in violation of local laws.