Nearly two out of three people who try to rent apartments in the District using federal housing vouchers meet significant resistance from landlords or get turned down flat, according to a report released today by an advocacy group.
Refusing to accept the Housing Choice Vouchers, which in the District go to households with annual incomes that average about $11,000, violates city law. Advocates for the poor said the rejections are discrimination and add another layer of difficulty for low-income people who are struggling to find an affordable apartment in the city's pricey housing market. They alleged that landlords bypass such applicants because they prefer to fill their buildings with higher-earning tenants.
"It's demoralizing. It's humiliating. It's dehumanizing," said Rabbi Bruce Kahn, executive director of the Equal Rights Center, the Washington civil rights group that is releasing the study. "Discrimination isn't healthy for any community. . . . There is an extra dimension of severity to it in the nation's capital."
After hearing complaints from would-be renters who were denied apartments, testers for the center spent two years combing through newspaper ads and calling landlords and management companies to inquire about specific units. In all, 75 buildings and 13 management companies were called about 108 vacancies, officials at the center said.
In 26 percent of the cases, the testers were told that vouchers -- formerly known as Section 8 vouchers -- were not an acceptable form of payment, said Dan Sullivan, director of enforcement for the center. In 35 percent of the cases, testers were told they would be turned away for other reasons -- because a building was not taking any more voucher holders, for example, or because the applicant did not earn enough to qualify for the apartment without the federal subsidy.
The District, along with 11 states and numerous local jurisdictions, including Montgomery and Howard counties, prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of how payments would be made. It is illegal to limit the number of apartments available to voucher holders in a qualifying building or to require a tenant to earn enough money to cover the rent without a voucher.
Officials from the Equal Rights Center and the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs said they plan to file lawsuits in D.C. Superior Court today against three of the landlords or management companies who turned away the testers.
Together, they control more than 2,000 rental units in the city, the lawyers said. Because voucher holders are disproportionately people of color, the lawyers said, the lawsuits will allege discrimination on the basis of race as well as income.
The lawyers said they would not name the landlords or companies until the lawsuits were filed.
Under federal guidelines for the Washington area, vouchers can be used for apartments with monthly rent of $915 or less for an efficiency, $1,045 or less for a one-bedroom, $1,187 or less for a two-bedroom, $1,537 or less for a three-bedroom and $2,000 or less for a four-bedroom. A tenant using a voucher pays no more than 30 percent of his or her income as rent, with federal funds making up the difference.
Nearly 11,000 D.C. households receive vouchers, according to the D.C. Housing Authority, which administers the program. About 800 of those households are looking for a place to rent. At least 30,000 people are on a waiting list to receive vouchers, the advocates' report said.
Advocates said the sharply rising housing prices in the Washington area and the steady conversion of affordable buildings into upscale residences have resulted in fewer apartments with rents low enough to qualify for participation in the voucher program.
In addition, the number of vouchers available is expected to decline considerably over the next five years because of cuts in federal funding for the program. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the number of vouchers available in the District will shrink by more than 1,000.
Landlords who have apartments that would qualify but who refuse to take the vouchers compound the problem, advocates for the poor said.
"There's a limited pool to begin with," said Julie Becker, a staff attorney with Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. "And then when you add in the people who simply don't want to take . . . vouchers, then people start to have a very difficult time."
Officials at the Housing Authority said they were aware of the investigation and supported the effort. "If these findings are true, obviously, they're very disturbing," spokesman Zachary Smith said. "Discriminating against people because of a voucher is illegal."
A spokeswoman for the professional association that represents apartment building owners in the city said the group has seminars each year to educate landlords about the law and frequently circulates memos on the issue as well.
Accepting federal vouchers "is required in D.C.," said Nicola Whiteman, a vice president for government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington. "I don't believe any of our members are turning anybody away."
The question of discrimination also is being litigated in Montgomery County, where a couple sued their landlord in February, alleging that their voucher had been denied.
Their lawsuit is pending in Montgomery County Circuit Court.