In summary

California’s Civil Rights Department recently filed a lawsuit to crackdown on housing voucher discrimination, which could inspire other states to do the same and help their most vulnerable tenants keep a roof over their heads.

Guest Commentary written by

Jacqueline Waggoner

Jacqueline Waggoner is president of the solutions division of the affordable housing nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners.

Families and individuals, particularly those with low incomes, are increasingly being left behind in a housing marketplace where racial and income discrimination run rampant. Last month, the state of California filed a lawsuit that might just pave the way for ensuring equitable access to housing for all Americans.

Earlier in January, California’s Civil Rights Department filed its first-ever lawsuit under the state’s 2020 prohibition against what’s known as source of income discrimination: the practice of refusing to rent to a tenant just because they use a housing voucher or other form of nontraditional income to pay rent.

The suit alleges that two Sacramento landlords served their tenant, Alysia Gonsalves, with an eviction notice, saying they would no longer rent to people who use what’s known as a Housing Choice Voucher – a federal program that helps pay rent for more than 2 million households nationwide. According to the department, when Gonsalves rightly pushed back, the landlords threatened violence, hurled racial slurs, locked her out of her home and destroyed her belongings.

For half a century, federal law has banned housing discrimination based on race, religion or membership in other protected classes. This is a cornerstone of civil rights litigation meant to address years of systemic discrimination in housing.

Unfortunately, as Gonsalves’ story shows, source-of-income discrimination is all too often a proxy for racial discrimination. Well over half of Black and Latino households in this country rent compared to a quarter of white households. Sixty-five percent of all voucher holders are people of color, according to federal data. 

Although California – along with 20 other states, the District of Columbia and some 100 local governments – has legally banned source-of-income discrimination, people with vouchers and others who pay rent with nontraditional income are still being illegally denied a place to live.

Normally such acts would merely be intolerable. But with the state and, indeed, the country in the throes of an affordable housing crisis, such discrimination only makes the shortage more acute for Californians statewide. And nationwide, despite a slowdown in rent hikes, housing costs are still at historic highs, wage growth isn’t keeping up and millions are struggling to find or merely maintain a roof over their heads.

It is no surprise then that the movement to ban source-of-income discrimination is gaining steam, helping ensure housing voucher programs are actually administered consistently and successfully. And the bans have been relatively effective. A 2018 Urban Institute study found that landlords in areas with source-of-income protections rejected tenants with vouchers around half as often as landlords in places without them. 

But any policy that lacks enforcement will fail to make progress toward ending housing discrimination.

To be fair, the challenge with enforcing income discrimination bans is widespread. New York City has some of the strongest source-of-income protections in the country, but the city is struggling to adequately staff its enforcement efforts. 

That’s why California’s lawsuit is so critical. It not only shows a commitment to the law, but also suggests that we need to direct even more funding to the Civil Rights Department to support greater enforcement. And Californians should keep the pressure on our policymakers to follow this path because income discrimination only worsens our statewide housing crisis.

Landlords also need to help with education. Many housing providers nationwide do not understand discrimination protection laws or have yet to realize the potential of renting to households with a source of guaranteed income. If landlords don’t understand the law or have little to no experience renting to residents with vouchers, stereotypes, misinformation and inequities remain persistent and unchallenged.

Of course, the broader solution would be for Congress to pass a federal ban on source-of-income discrimination and put dollars behind enforcement. This would eliminate any confusion among landlords and tenants alike about the rules around accepting vouchers. 

California faces an unprecedented crisis, unable to affordably house millions of people. A failure of enforcement effectively limits our use of federal funding and sidelines families from housing opportunities. It only makes our shortage more acute. 

It’s good to see the Civil Rights Department take action. Hopefully it’s the first of more crackdowns to prevent housing discrimination.

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