People may wait years for a Housing Choice Voucher, but once they get one, it’s still an uphill battle to find a place to live.

Finding a landlord that accepts a voucher is a huge challenge for many renters who face discrimination for using the nation’s largest federally subsidized rental assistance program.

klenger / Adobe Stock

In Rhode Island, approximately 9,300 families rely on the program to help pay their rent.

With a voucher, participating tenants should be able to afford roughly 34% of the apartments advertised online each day around the state, but, in actuality, discrimination narrows the share of housing opportunities closer to a mere 7%, according to a new study released by SouthCoast Fair Housing (SCFH).

The nonprofit organization undertook the research to examine how source-of-income discrimination affects Rhode Islanders. The state currently does not have a law that prevents landlords from income-based discrimination.

State lawmakers have recently proposed bills to amend the state’s fair housing laws, but those attempts have failed to pass the General Assembly.

The issue is not exclusive just to families receiving rental assistance, says Claudia Wack, legal fellow at SCFH and the report’s author.

“Although this research was specific to discrimination against Housing Choice Vouchers, which many people know as Sec. 8, a law prohibiting discrimination against lawful sources of income would also encompass folks beyond that,” she says. “We hear that people on Social Security run into similar issues.”

People who rely on veterans’ benefits, child support, and alimony also may be vulnerable.

Blatant discrimination

To better understand the challenges faced by voucher holders, SCFH first examined online advertisements for rental housing.

Only 34% of the approximately 3,070 listings posted during the study period were affordable for a Rhode Islander with a voucher. However, 6.4% explicitly discouraged voucher holders from even applying with statements such as “no Sec. 8.”

Researchers found many landlords deploying very blunt phrases like “no government programs” and “don’t bother applying if you’re not working full time,” says Wack.

Another 15% required prospective tenants to earn two or three times the rent, effectively disqualifying low-income renters. That meant only 27% of the online listings were “plausibly acceptable” to a voucher holder.

A second component of the study involved a telephone audit with SCFH test callers contacting landlords and leasing agents about over 150 ads. Once reached by phone, 63% of the contacts refused to consider a tenant with a voucher. “An additional 11% gave equivocal answers, compounding the already-high rejection rate,” says the study.

“Even the ads that don’t have that sort of flagrant discrimination don’t necessary represent actual housing opportunities,” Wack says. “Once you call, you encounter a second wave of rejection. Those numbers are critical.”

By calling and being able to show that even the ads that look like a tenant with a voucher may have a shot, the fact is the vast majority of those units are also unavailable, she says.

While families should be able to afford more than third of the statewide listings, they are ultimately shut out of approximately 93% of the homes.

The SCFH study provides new and additional understanding as state lawmakers continue to weigh legislation that would prevent income-based discrimination.

“We’re hoping it provides concrete statistics that people can point to,” Wack says. “Rhode Island tenants have been raising the alarm about this issue for many years. ... I think our hope is if we can pin down the systemic nature of it in a more clear way, that will motivate legislators to act.”