By Heather Mullins Crislip and Greta Harris
Quality housing that is affordable is important for a functioning economy, stable workforce and thriving families. In Virginia, 235,000 modest-income families need affordable housing, but only about 94,500 units are available within that price range.
Many of our citizens are cost burdened, paying up to or more than 50% of their monthly income toward rent. Incomes have not kept pace with housing costs, making this a problem for all Virginians when employees miss work, kids miss school and families are destabilized because of housing stresses.
The ways we support this part of our community are changing. Traditional public housing — concentrating large numbers of very low-income families — is going away. Instead, lower-income households will rely on housing choice vouchers (also referred to as Section 8 vouchers) augmenting what a family can afford with a public sector subsidy through a voucher payment.
Participating landlords provide their standard application review process and receive full rental payment from the two combined sources. Unfortunately, less than 20% of Richmond-area landlords currently accept housing choice vouchers, leaving these families with few options.
In Virginia, 10,500 seniors, 24,500 people with disabilities and 22,750 families with nearly 50,000 children secure their housing with a housing choice voucher (this is only 25% of Virginians who could potentially qualify). The need is great and the waiting lists are long.
A voucher should give them the ability to leverage our public investment to choose to live close to work or avail themselves of better schools. Regrettably, it remains perfectly legal to deny housing to someone using a voucher, limiting the promise of the voucher and our public investment to better stabilize communities.
There are just two core requirements for a landlord accepting a voucher:
- Complete two additional pieces of paper — a tenancy addendum and a housing assistance payment contract, and
- Comply with inspection — a basic quality inspection is completed within 15 days, with many voucher administrators completing these steps in less time.
The Better Housing Coalition, a nonprofit housing developer and owner, has approved thousands of voucher applicants throughout our entire regional portfolio of properties over our 30-year history. The property inspection for a voucher applicant to occupy an apartment is not onerous for landlords seeking to provide a quality, livable environment for their residents.
The voucher requirements match what any property owner should be providing and the predictable rental income (deposited into your account reliably every month) is a desirable cash flow opportunity. Private landlords who dismiss vouchers as burdensome are likely recounting stories and experiences that are decades old.
Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia works with voucher holders to help them find a good place to live in lower-poverty neighborhoods. In our experience, it is common for someone to receive a voucher after being on the waitlist for several years only to lose it because they are unable to find a rental property that will accept this payment subsidy.
Our 2019 report, “Choices Constrained,” investigated voucher utilization and can be found at HOMEofVA.org. As the report documents, we contacted 139 apartment complexes across the region and found that only 26 (18.75%) accepted vouchers. Refusing vouchers has become a default practice in our tightening housing market.
The cumulative effect of refusing to lease apartments based on how tenants pay their rent severely constrains the rental housing market for lower-income Virginians, exacerbates segregated housing patterns and serves to perpetuate intergenerational poverty. The concentrations of poverty that result put undue stress on communities and strain the resources of local jurisdictions.
Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, introduced House Bill 6 this legislative session to add “source of income” as a protected class under Virginia’s Fair Housing Act. This protection does not mean that a landlord has to accept anyone who has a voucher. Landlords can utilize the same screening criteria (credit and rental history, sufficiency of funds, background check, etc.) they do for any prospective tenant.
HB6 does prevent a landlord from denying an applicant simply because they will pay with a rental voucher. It also would not require a landlord to accept less than market rent for their apartment. The voucher pays the difference between the amount the applicant can afford and the full rent amount so the landlord is not financially harmed.
We believe that “source of income” protections under the Virginia Fair Housing Act would leverage the public investment we are already making in affordable housing to make the commonwealth stronger, with less concentrated poverty, and more opportunities for modest-income families to thrive.