In the District, “source of income” discrimination, or differential treatment based on where a person gets their money, is illegal. This protection covers housing, including when someone attempts to rent a unit by using a government subsidy.
But a new pilot study by the D.C.-based Urban Institute finds that 15 percent of landlords in D.C. and nearby Montgomery County, Maryland—where source of income discrimination is also illegal—say they do not accept housing vouchers for rental payments. The think-tank’s analysis suggests that the local housing market is limited for voucher-holders, and that low-income families can struggle to get into affordable units.
Public housing authorities funded by the federal government typically provide such rental subsidies to low-income families through the Housing Choice Voucher program, the U.S.’ largest rental-assistance program. Families then use the vouchers on the private market. According to the D.C. Housing Authority, more than 10,000 families receive the vouchers.
To see whether private landlords discriminate against voucher-holders, researchers at the Urban Institute designed and conducted about 4,000 tests over a 16-month period in five cities: D.C., Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Newark, New Jersey, and Fort Worth, Texas.
The researchers identified 8,735 online advertisements for rental housing where it appeared that landlords might accept vouchers based on the information in the ads. In D.C., they had to screen 19 ads on average before finding a potentially eligible unit, as compared with 11 in Philadelphia, 30 in Fort Worth, and more than 50 in both Los Angeles and Newark.
Next, the researchers called the landlords and asked whether they took housing vouchers. During these conversations, the caller was a “female tester who would be perceived as White,” as an experimental control, the study notes. The researchers ultimately ran 3,780 such tests across the five cities, including 432 in D.C.
Overall, they discovered high rates of landlords who rejected housing vouchers as rental payments. In D.C., the rate was 14.8 percent, or 64 of the 432 calls—the lowest denial rate across the five cities. Los Angeles and Fort Worth had the highest denial rates: 76.4 percent and 78 percent, respectively.
“In Newark and Washington, D.C., where voucher holders are a protected class under local source-of-income antidiscrimination laws, denial rates were lower compared with sites without such protections,” the researchers write.
Still, in D.C., 9.7 percent of landlords said they would only accept housing vouchers under certain conditions—such as if the vouchers were for certain unit sizes or covered certain amounts of rent—and 4.6 percent said they did not know what their voucher policy was.
The researchers, who conducted additional phone and in-person tests in three of the cities, but neither in D.C. nor Philadelphia, caution that factors besides source of income laws may explain the different outcomes. Those factors include higher voucher-payment standards in D.C. and Philadelphia, housing market supply, and public housing authorities’ performance.
Future testing could more closely examine the role of race in voucher discrimination and landlords’ motivations for accepting or denying vouchers, the researchers say. They add that to get more low-income families into stable housing, jurisdictions could approve legal protections for voucher-holders, incentivize landlords to participate in voucher programs, and increase voucher payments.
“The process of finding an available unit, reaching landlords, finding a landlord to accept vouchers, and then meeting with them to view the available housing was extremely difficult,” conclude the researchers. “The search requires sifting through numerous advertisements, making numerous calls, and facing frequent rejection.”