Section 8: What to know about the housing vouchers and discriminatory rental policies

In Columbus, thousands of low-income residents receive federal subsidies through the “Section 8” Housing Choice Voucher program every year. But not all of them end up being housed.

Voucher holders have long struggled with discriminatory rental policies. In July 2021, a new city ordinance banned source-of-income discrimination, making it illegal for landlords to reject potential tenants simply because they receive government subsidies like Housing Choice Vouchers.

But the new law has not made an immediate impact due to the city’s affordable housing shortage and a newly set up enforcement mechanism that has yet to prove effective, the Dispatch recently reported.

How does the Housing Choice Voucher program work?

The Housing Choice Voucher program is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In Franklin County, low-income households that meet the eligibility criteria can receive up to a certain amount of subsidies depending on the type of apartment they need — $1,135 for a two-bedroom apartment, for example. They can also apply to get their utility costs covered.

Prospective applicants can sign up to enter a lottery pool on the website of the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), which administers over 12,500 federal vouchers throughout Franklin County. The agency will then pull applicants from the lottery pool for processing on an as-needed basis.

The process can take years. Right now, there are more than 20,000 residents in CMHA’s Housing Choice Voucher lottery pool and about 5,900 lottery selectees who are waiting for their vouchers to get processed, according to CMHA statistics.

Why is it so difficult to look for housing with a voucher?

The Housing Choice Voucher program is intended to alleviate economic segregation. Compared with publicly owned housing developments, the program is supposed to give low-income residents freedom in choosing where they want to live.

In practice, however, from identifying an available unit to finding landlords who accept Section 8 tenants.

In Franklin County, there is an estimated affordable housing shortage of 54,000 units. As a result, landlords often are reluctant to go through inspection, fill out paperwork and comply with other CMHA requirements just so they can work with Section 8 tenants.

In Columbus, voucher recipients have 120 days to look for a landlord unless CMHA grants them an extension. In the past three years, more than 3,600 out of the12,200 vouchers issued to families — about 30%  — ended up expiring because residents could not secure a lease in time. Approximately 7,000 voucher recipients were ultimately housed; the rest are still looking for rental options.

What can you do if you experience source-of-income discrimination?

Across the country, there are more than 100 cities and counties that have banned source-of-income discrimination. In Columbus, a landlord found guilty of refusing to rent based on an individual’s income source would be guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Voucher holders who believe they have experienced source-of-income discrimination can report the case to the Columbus Urban League, the city’s fair housing contractor. The organization will then work with residents to investigate the case as well as providing mediation services to help them stay in their homes.

There are a number of other local organizations — Homes for Families, Homefull, the Community Shelter Board, the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, to name a few — that can help voucher holders and other low-income renters look for safe and affordable housing.

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