In spite of decades of fair housing laws, studies in different cities have shown that black families still face routine discrimination when they attempt to use federal housing vouchers to rent an apartment.
Landlords in Washington, D.C., are more likely to deny access to housing, or to provide confusing or incorrect information, to black families seeking to use a voucher, according to a report released this week from the Equal Rights Center, which seeks to end discrimination in housing and employment.
The report tracked two sets of African-American families, with one group attempting to rent an apartment using a voucher to help subsidize the cost and the other set of families inquiring about an apartment without mentioning a voucher.
Discrimination based on source of income is a growing problem in D.C. and elsewhere, the report concluded.
"Results of this investigation indicate that source-of-income discrimination plays a clear role in maintaining, if not intensifying, racial segregation within the D.C. housing market. It also appears to be one piece of a complex confluence of factors that is leading African-American families to move out of the District altogether."
Washington, D.C., like Chicago and New York City, requires all landlords to accept housing vouchers, which have been in use since Congress passed the Housing Act of 1974. The vouchers are federally funded but locally administered through a city or county's housing authority. In certain parts of D.C., vouchers may pay a property owner up to 175 percent of an apartment's market rate. Even high-end apartments are required to accept the vouchers, although their high rents are usually still beyond the reach of many families.
The Equal Rights Center relied on a relatively small handful of test cases, and the report notes that the results are not statistically representative of the housing market as a whole. Still, the findings "support the conclusion that discrimination against voucher holders in the District is rampant," the report said.
“D.C. is special because we do have a source-of-income protection in the law. It seems even with the protection the violations are so flagrant,” says Kate Scott, deputy director of the Equal Rights Center.
Reports in other cities have shown similar results.
The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center conducted a similar study of housing vouchers in 2009. Ninety-nine percent of the housing voucher holders in the city are black, and according to the study, 82 percent of landlords refused to accept housing vouchers. New Orleans does not legally require landlords to accept housing vouchers.
That report painted an especially troubling picture of the challenges faced by blacks in the New Orleans housing market.
When questioned, one landlord told researchers he would begin to consider accepting vouchers when “black ministers ... start teaching morals and ethics to their own, so they don't have litters of pups like animals, and they're not milking the system.” Some landlords in New Orleans turned down prospective black renters who planned to use vouchers after agreeing to rent the same apartments to prospective white renters using housing vouchers.
Nationwide, housing advocates have raised concerns about landlords discriminating against tenants using housing vouchers and have asked to expand the available slots of housing vouchers and diversifying the population who use the subsidy.