Missouri could make housing policy more fair – here’s how

Our neighbors who don’t have adequate resources to meet their basic needs often rely on state and federal programs for assistance. When it comes to housing for individuals and families with low wages or low resources, the federal government offers the Section 8 program.

The first step in accessing this assistance is to apply with the local Public Housing Authorities (PHAs), which manage Section 8 allocation. In Missouri we have 130 PHAs, all with very long waiting lists. In fact, only 20 of these PHAs are currently accepting applicants, while the other 110 are closed entirely. Even after they’ve finally been added to the list, families can wait up to 3 years before they get an interview. 

While some of Section 8 funding is still project based, much of that money is now distributed through what is called Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs). A HCV is intended to allow the recipient to choose where they live, rather than being constrained to a public housing unit. Voucher holders may choose to live near work, a preferred school district, or social resources like quality daycare. The PHA pays a portion of the rent directly to the landlord, while the renter pays the rest.

In 2018 HUD studied the effectiveness of HCV and the ability for recipients to use them as designed. They found that even after years of navigating long waiting lists to receive a HCV, finding a landlord who will accept the voucher is extremely difficult and time consuming. HUD found that only one in every 40 privately-owned units accepted vouchers, and they were even more difficult to come by in low poverty areas.

One way our representatives in Missouri could address this discrepancy is to ban “source of income” discrimination in rental leasing. From a practical standpoint, a HCV is income, a guarantee the landlord will be paid. It is illegal for a landlord to refuse to rent to someone because of where they work or the color of their skin, and it should similarly be illegal for landlords to refuse because a renter uses HCVs. Missouri currently has no ban on this practice, and only the city of St. Louis has passed an ordinance to address the problem.

Fort Worth, TX also has no protections for voucher holders. Landlords deny voucher holders rental applications at a rate of 78%, and the denial rate in low poverty areas is even higher, at 85%. Compare that to Washington DC, which has a ban on source of income discrimination, which has reduced the denial rate to only 15%. This is evidence that source of income discrimination bans greatly impact the ability for families to use their vouchers as intended – to secure stable housing in the community of their choice.

HUD’s study suggests that once landlords understand the HCV program, they are willing to accept renters with vouchers. Those landlords who accepted vouchers tended to present about the same number of units to voucher recipients as those who did not receive vouchers. This suggests that landlords who have a better understanding of the Housing Choice Voucher system tend to realize that renters with vouchers are similar to those without. 

There may be other reasons landlords are reluctant to work with voucher holders, and HUD has suggested other programmatic improvements. Adjusting local Fair Market Rent (FMR) so landlords receive as much rent as they could without the voucher and increasing PHA resources to provide a better customer service experience are both improvements we would love to see.

There is no one housing policy that is a silver bullet. The housing crisis in America is too big. However, a source of income discrimination ban in Missouri would go a long way to helping our neighbors and friends who need assitance.

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