This is the second 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 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.
When Bill Planek’s property management company took over 927 S. Wesley Ave. in Oak Park, he didn’t renew Gale Riley’s lease.
It wasn’t because she was late on her rent, in fact she’d never missed a payment. It also wasn’t because she was messy, noisy or damaged the apartment.
It was that she paid her rent using a subsidized housing voucher. Riley wasn’t alone. All voucher tenants staying on Greenplan Management’s property were given 30-day notices.
“It’s nothing against the people and their financial position,” Planek said. “In a perfect world, this would all be easy, but it’s not a perfect world and it always ends up that the property manager ends up holding the bag.”
The Cook County board is considering amending their Human Rights Ordinance to make what Planek did illegal – turning away renters because they rely on a housing voucher. But Planek says the amendment would make it very difficult for him to operate his business because of the administrative headaches the program creates.
“If the program was better administrated, a better partnership, it would be easier to participate,” said Planek.
With a housing voucher, Planek explained, he would sign a lease with the tenant and the housing authority – detailing how much rent each party would pay him and the terms of the lease. But if the tenant violates their lease – stops paying their rent, damages the apartment or has too many people living in the apartment – the lease is null and void.
If he contacted the housing authority about the lease violation, the tenant’s housing voucher would be terminated. Planek would no longer receive a rent payment from the housing authority and would be stuck with a tenant who he knows can’t afford the rent. The rules, he says, are set by the government, a large bureaucracy he can’t negotiate with or easily get answer from.
“I’m dealing with a third party that is huge, distanced from me, doesn’t care about me, and now doesn’t care what happens,” said Planek. “If you can avoid having that third party to deal with, why wouldn’t you?”
Other landlords echo Planek’s statements about the administrative headaches of the voucher program. Dan Schermerhorn, owner of Schermerhorn and Co. Real Estate Management in Evanston, spoke at a hearing in July on the proposed amendment in front of the Cook County board. He says if the law is put in place, he would have to hire an additional employee just to deal with the increased paperwork and regulations of the program.
“Anytime you’re getting money from the government, there are strings attached to the money, which I absolutely agree with,” said Schermerhorn. “By making it mandatory [to accept vouchers] you no longer give the property owner the chance to decide whether the strings attached are worth the money they receive.”
Schermerhorn said normally, when a tenant signs a lease, they pay their first month’s rent up front. But with voucher tenants, he says sometimes the first month’s rent doesn’t come for several months,
Schermerhorn said the perception that he’s discriminating against tenants isn’t true. He hasn’t had problems with voucher tenants – just with the program.
“If they continue to improve the program, more landlords will voluntarily participate rather than being forced to participate,” said Schermerhorn.
Schermerhorn is a member of the Illinois Association of Realtors, which has come out against the proposal. Jon Broadbrooks, director of communications for the association, said the voucher program should remain voluntary.
“Fundamentally, it comes down to a property rights issue. Should you be forced to take part in a program?” he said.
Broadbrooks said it’s not about discriminating against poor tenants.
“I think there’s been a lot made of people trying to stigmatize Section 8. The majority of Section 8 people are people who need the assistance to make ends meet. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be bad renters by any means,” said Broadbrooks.
He said his members are not trying to discriminate, but are worried about their businesses.
“The conversation has come from the money side: Am I going to lose money because I have to go through bureaucratic loopholes?”
Planek says he understands the concerns of housing advocates and wants to be able to provide all different kinds of people with safe and decent housing. He’s signed many leases with nonprofit agencies like Catholic Charities, housing people who were formerly homeless and getting services through the organization. But in those cases, the organization signs the lease and will keep paying if something goes wrong.
“The government describes the program as a three-legged stool–the housing authority, the tenant and the property owner,” said Planek. “But if one or two of those parties leaves the agreement–well, that stool can’t stand up.”