This is the first in a four part series about a proposed ordinance in front of the Cook County board that would prevent suburban landlords from discriminating against low-income tenants. The series includes this post, the story of a renter who’s faced such discrimination, as well as perspectives from property owners, realtors and a look at the political challenges facing the ordinance.
Gale Riley had lived at 927 S. Wesley Ave. in Oak Park for three years when the new management company sent her a notice saying her lease wouldn’t be renewed.
Riley checked with other tenants in the building and found that everyone who was being asked to leave had one thing in common: they all paid their rent through a housing choice voucher.
A housing choice voucher, often referred to as a Section 8 voucher, allows low-income families to pay 30 percent of their income to a private landlord, who then receives a government subsidy for the rest of the rent. But not all landlords take them.
The words “No Section 8” are commonly mentioned in rental listings in suburban Cook County, but an umbrella group is trying to change that. The group, which consists of more than 50 organizations, has started an online petition to support an amendment to the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance in front of the Cook County board that would prevent landlords from discriminating against tenants with a subsidized voucher.
Riley said she’s a model tenant and didn’t deserve to be turned away because she has a voucher.
“I paid my rent on time. I don’t make complaints,” said Riley. “My credit is fine. It’s not like they even checked to see. They just told me that they don’t take it.”
Riley’s former landlord, Bill Planek of Greenplan Management, confirmed that he doesn’t accept vouchers in his buildings, but points to problems with with the administration of the voucher program, not tenants, as the reason.
It’s tenants like Riley who made John Bartlett, director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, realize that something needed to be done. Discriminating against voucher holders – legally referred to as “source of income” discrimination – is already outlawed in the city of Chicago and has been since 1998. But in the suburbs, the practice is alive and well.
“You still find them out in the county – ads that say ‘No vouchers’ or ‘No 8’s’,” said Bartlett. “Source of income discrimination may be the largest source of discrimination that the city deals with.”
Bartlett said the housing voucher program was designed to help low-income people rent housing in more affluent communities, instead of concentrating poor families in high poverty neighborhoods. But when landlords in nicer neighborhoods can just turn voucher tenants away, it goes against the purpose of the program.
Riley said it’s been difficult to find a unit in Oak Park, but she was determined to stay in a safe area.
“The people that really need these places can’t even get them. We shouldn’t have to go to the real high poverty areas just to get housing,” said Riley.
That’s seemingly why the majority of voucher holders end up living in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and crime, said Bartlett.
“It really does relegate people to the kind of communities that have high poverty, which also tend to be mostly black or Latino,” said Bartlett. “Landlords there will take them because they can often times get a higher rent than they otherwise would be able to.”
Bartlett said making sure the program works is important because housing policy has been moving toward a voucher-based system in the private market, rather than traditional public housing, where government directly owns and manages properties.
“If that’s the path that we’re taking, then we need to make sure that people have opportunities to move in any area that they want so that they’re close to jobs and good transportation,” said Bartlett.
Bartlett points to a study by the Lawyer’s Committee for Better Housing that showed families with vouchers face significant discrimination in the rental market. The study had testers pose as potential tenants trying to rent units in different areas of the city with a subsidized voucher. When testers made calls on apartment listings throughout the city, 46 percent were told that the property owner didn’t accept vouchers, despite it being illegal to do so. When the testers focused on more affluent neighborhoods, 55 percent of landlords illegally discriminated against voucher holders.
The study found that race also played a role. Nearly 20 percent of property owners told a minority tester they didn’t accept vouchers as a form of payment after telling a white tester they would.
Overall, the study estimated that voucher holders were denied access to 70 percent of the units in Chicago that fall within program guidelines. And that’s in an area where they are at least legally protected, unlike suburban County.
Bartlett said vouchers don’t just help families, but they also help the city combat racial and economic segregation.
“If we want to affect segregation, we need to make sure that people have opportunities to move where they want to and where they can – not to just be dictated by whether the landlord says they will accept Section 8,” said Bartlett.
Finding a landlord who would accept her voucher after she was booted from her Oak Park apartment was daunting, said Riley.
“Everybody was turning me down. They were saying.’ You seem like a really nice person, I have this feeling you’ll be a good tenant. We just don’t take it due to bad experiences,’” said Riley. “It took me a long time to find something. Nice places but they weren’t accepting housing vouchers.”
Eventually, she did find a townhouse available for rent and signed a two-year lease. She said she supports the move to ban discrimination against vouchers in Cook County and hopes the amendment will be implemented soon.
“I don’t think we should be judged on just vouchers alone – maybe the person, their history as a tenant,” said Riley. “It really should be a law. Everybody should have equal rights to live where they want to live.”