Housing is foundational to a just and equitable recovery. Relief programs for the millions of people whose livelihoods have been upended by COVID-19—rental assistance, eviction moratoria, and others—have been essential but temporary by design. However, the impacts of the pandemic are long lasting, adding to the severe affordable housing challenges that existed long before the current crisis. It’s time to enact long-term solutions that protect and keep America’s renters stably housed.
Fortunately, we know what works. One of the most impactful legislative measures that the federal government can implement to improve housing stability for families and individuals is the expansion of the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, which enables very low-income families, seniors, and people with disabilities to afford quality housing. Universal Section 8 was a priority on President BidenJoe BidenGOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips Five House members meet with Taiwanese president despite Chinese objections Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist MORE’s housing agenda during his presidential campaign. Now is the time to implement it!
Section 8 is vital for preventing people from experiencing homelessness in a real estate market that has witnessed skyrocketing rents across the country. It also enacts fair housing protections for families of color, who have been systematically denied housing choices due to practices such as redlining, exclusionary zoning, and steering. More than 2.1 million U.S. households benefit from housing choice vouchers in a given year, and families of color make up the majority of this population.
At the same time, the federal government should require that all landlords nationwide accept housing vouchers. Section 8 only works if federal rental assistance is classified as a legal form of rent payment everywhere. But most U.S. cities and states currently allow landlords to deny a tenant housing if they plan to use non-wage income like veterans’ benefits or Section 8 to pay their rent, through a practice called Source of Income (SOI) discrimination.
Changing the systems that allow income bias to persist requires federal legislation making SOI discrimination illegal nationwide, with sufficient funding to enforce it. In New York, the Statewide Source of Income Coalition led by Enterprise Community Partners successfully fought to make SOI discrimination illegal statewide in 2019—but a recent investigation by Housing Rights Initiative into 88 New York City landlords found that people paying rent with Section 8 vouchers and other non-wage benefits still experience bias.
Similarly, in 2019 California passed SB329, a state fair housing law that made housing vouchers a protected source of income; yet recent investigations from Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California have shown that SOI discrimination still persists, with landlords creating illegal workarounds to avoid accepting vouchers. Washington, D.C., also passed source of income protections in 2005 but, as recently as 2018, 15% of District landlords still rejected voucher holders, according to The Urban Institute.
While landlords may refuse Section 8 vouchers for a variety of reasons, the decision is ultimately a proxy for keeping people with low incomes, particularly Black and Latino residents, out of their properties—and local and state actions can only go so far in solving this problem. Our communities need legal source of income protections and adequate enforcement measures at the federal level. Only this two-pronged approach that introduces key legislation and provides the resources to enforce it will end income bias and safeguard housing for the roughly 11 million Americans who need and use federal assistance to pay their rent.
As a candidate, President Biden pledged to make Section 8 universal, and his FY 2022 budget called for $5.4 billion for an expansion of vouchers. We urge Congress to include the Section 8 expansion in its FY 2022 appropriations legislation. Furthermore, to meet his goal of “building back better,” and enact true systems change, President Biden must fight for Section 8 expansion and push Congress to pass accompanying legislation codifying the protection of non-wage forms of income for rent payment.
It’s also essential for state and city leaders to do their part by allocating funding to enforce and raise awareness for existing SOI and fair housing laws. State and city agencies should conduct SOI “Know Your Rights” trainings and outreach campaigns. Local governments have a robust understanding of housing issues on the ground and can target residents with the greatest needs.
Everyone deserves a place to call home, and now is the time to implement transformational, long-term solutions for housing stability. President Biden and Congress must act quickly in pairing Universal Section 8 with federal SOI protections and enforcement. State and local governments should then follow suit with greater fair housing enforcement and awareness campaigns. With urgency and teamwork, but most importantly, humanity and a commitment to constituents, our leaders can uplift the most vulnerable Americans with the hope of a stable home.
Jacqueline Waggoner is president of the Solutions division at Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing nonprofit.