Study finds rampant discrimination by landlords against people who get housing help

But the data shows real change happens when cities pass laws protecting people who use housing vouchers.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 19: A group of row houses that face Rhode Island Ave. are seen in the Eckington neighborhood in NE on March 19, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 19: A group of row houses that face Rhode Island Ave. are seen in the Eckington neighborhood in NE on March 19, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

People who use federal vouchers to help pay for their rent are denied housing by landlords at startling rates, according to a new study. However, the rates of discrimination were substantially less in cities that have passed laws protecting people who receive such federal housing vouchers.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher program helps low-income families, elderly or disabled people, veterans, and other vulnerable populations afford safe and sanitary housing in the private market — renting from the same landlords and often at the same rates as non-voucher renters. But finding a home through the program is a difficult task because landlords are far more likely to turn them away because they use vouchers, according to the Urban Institute study that was sponsored by HUD.

The study looked at five cities — Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Forth Worth, Philadelphia and Newark. Researchers screened over 341,000 online advertisements and had “testers” call up landlords and track their interactions with potential voucher-holding tenants.

The federal voucher program disproportionately serves members of protected classes including families with children, racial and ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities. Federal law bans housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, family status, and disability, but there are no source-of-income protections. That means federal law doesn’t stop landlords from denying housing to voucher users, and discrimination against federal voucher recipients was high in all five cities, according to the study.


But some states and cities have imposed laws that protect renters who use housing vouchers, and in those cities, discrimination was significantly lower than in cities without protective laws.

Landlords denied renting to voucher recipients 78 percent of the time in Fort Worth and 76.4 percent of the time in Los Angeles — two cities without legal protections for voucher renters, according to the study. Philadelphia, where voucher holders were denied housing 66.8 percent of the time, has source-of-income anti-discrimination laws on the books, but its neighboring Bucks County does not.

The report is “quite disturbing,” said Doug Guthrie, president and CEO of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA). Among the cities studied, Los Angeles had the second-highest rate of discrimination against voucher holders. City councilors are in the process of drafting laws that impose such protections, Guthrie told ThinkProgress, a measure that the housing authority and the mayor support.

The high rate of discrimination against voucher renters is “a combination of a number of things that have been building the last number of years but in Los Angeles, we have a really tight rental housing market,” Guthrie said. “What rental units are coming online are typically market-rate units, which are not available to the vast majority of Los Angelenos.”

Meanwhile, two cities where voucher holders are considered protected classes had the lowest discrimination rates: Washington D.C. had a denial rate of 14.8 percent and Newark, 30.9 percent.


“Voucher recipients are a legally protected class in the District of Columbia, which is definitely beneficial for our voucher customers,” District of Columbia Housing Authority Housing Choice Voucher Program Director Ronald McCoy told ThinkProgress. “At 175 percent of HUD’s fair market rent, our customers have more neighborhoods to choose from and our landlords can charge rents that are more in line with what they could receive in the open market.”