Landlords reject Section 8 tenants
PHILADELPHIA — One morning last year, Michele Carter woke up to find an eviction notice slipped under her apartment door. She had to move, she was later told, to make way for the renovation of her high-rise and the higherpaying tenants it would bring.
Carter, 66, an Air Force veteran who lives on a small monthly disability check, did not panic, at least not at first. She considered herself one of the lucky handful of her building’s tenants who had what they called a “golden lottery ticket” — a voucher from the federal government’s Section 8 housing program that would allow them to move anywhere in Philadelphia with a guaranteed subsidy paying 70 percent of the rent.
But she quickly discovered that her Section 8 voucher, for decades an essential way of providing low-income people with affordable housing, had diminishing value.
“I saw this flyer for an apartment up on the wall in the building. It looked perfect. Then I get to the bottom, and in big black letters was written, ‘No Vouchers,’ ” said Carter, who ended up moving in with relatives for 13 months before being placed in a senior supportive living complex this year.
A survey by the nonpartisan Urban Institute, commissioned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and released in August, documented the problem in stark terms. It found that 67 percent of Philadelphia’s landlords refused to even consider voucher holders, some candidly citing the low subsidies and their desire to cash in on a hot market. The rejection rates were even higher in Fort Worth, Texas, and Los Angeles, where three-quarters of landlords turned away Section 8 tenants.
“It is a crisis,” said Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s housing unit, which defends tenants in court. “It used to be that Section 8 was basically a guarantee of shelter for families, for the elderly, for disabled people, but now it’s becoming much harder for tenants to get landlords to take the vouchers. And it’s only getting worse as the market heats up.”
While participation in Section 8 is voluntary for landlords, many states, including Pennsylvania, have “source of income” laws that make it illegal to discriminate against tenants based on whether they pay with a voucher or cash. But such cases are hard to prove and timeconsuming.
In normal times, Section 8 is a reliable source of income for landlords in low-income neighborhoods — and in down markets, owners often compete for such tenants. That calculation has flipped in many cities.
“This is a lottery ticket for most low-income people,” said Mary K. Cunningham, an Urban Institute vice president who worked on the study. “They have been waiting probably years to get their voucher and are thinking, ‘Wow! Now I can get an apartment!’ and they don’t realize how difficult it will be to get a landlord to rent to them.”
Ben Carson, the Housing and Urban Development secretary, who has been sharply criticized for failing to respond to a housing affordability crisis, has convened a task force on the issues with Section 8. Over the next several months, he plans to meet with landlords in Philadelphia and other cities to discuss ways to make the program more attractive.
“We’ll be traveling the country to hear directly from landlords and property managers about how we can make the voucher program more accessible and acceptable,” Carson said in an email last month. “What we hear will help guide us as we look to make changes and improve the likelihood that landlords say yes to voucher holders.”
Carson is considering a number of reforms, including increasing technical assistance to housing authorities intended to streamline the certification process and to speed payments to landlords, according to three officials familiar with his plans.
He is also mulling a plan that could ease some inspection requirements for properties in the program, a move that would be likely to prompt legal opposition from lawyers for poor tenants.
But Carson publicly supported a budget plan by President Donald Trump last year that would have slashed the voucher program by $841 million. Eventually, the Senate restored the cuts, adding $1.7 billion to the program, officially known as housing choice vouchers.
Those restorations are likely to have a minimal impact, especially as localities are spending more to keep lower-end housing stock from falling into disrepair. “The $1.7 billion nationally could easily be eaten up in Philadelphia,” Jeremiah, the housing authority president, said. “We need $1.5 billion to preserve the housing we already have.”