Housing vouchers are designed to help low-income families afford decent, safe homes and have the opportunity to move out of poor neighborhoods. In theory, voucher holders can move anywhere they can find an affordable home; in practice, their housing choices are severely constrained and significantly dependent on landlords.
Landlords decide if they want to accept vouchers as payment, so they have a great deal of influence over where voucher holders can live. Yet there has been little research into landlords’ behavior or their perceptions of the program.
This report presents findings from the largest, most comprehensive test of housing voucher discrimination to date, providing data on voucher acceptance among landlords and differential treatment of paired testers, matched on all characteristics except voucher use.
This pilot study, sponsored by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), conducted tests across neighborhoods in five sites, roughly in proportion to the locations of voucher-affordable housing in each site. We gleaned lessons for housing policy and future testing studies by conducting nearly 4,000 tests over 16 months.
The project’s goals were to identify ways to measure differential treatment of renters who use housing vouchers, identify the types and patterns of rental housing discrimination against voucher holders, and measure the prevalence and extent of the discrimination.
We found that searching for housing with vouchers is time consuming and frustrating. Many searches turn up short, and many landlords do not accept vouchers.
What is the Housing Choice Voucher Program?
The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program is the federal government’s largest rental housing assistance program. Participants are responsible for finding housing in the private market to rent, but landlords can decide whether to accept or refuse voucher tenants. Voucher holders are not a protected class under the Fair Housing Act, but because the voucher program disproportionally serves members of protected classes (e.g., families with children, racial and ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities) program outcomes have fair housing implications.
Beyond the federal statute, states and local jurisdictions have passed local ordinances, often referred to as source-of-income protections, that make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against voucher holders.
Finding rental housing is challenging for voucher holders
Our study shows that finding housing with a voucher is extremely difficult, from identifying an available unit and reaching landlords to finding landlords willing to accept vouchers to meeting with landlords to view available housing. The search required sifting through numerous advertisements, making several calls, and facing frequent rejection. For example, the field team sifted through more than 341,000 rental ads for the five study sites to identify 8,735 units that were available and met both the testing parameters and local voucher program rent limits. On average, we screened 39 ads to identify one potentially eligible unit.
This study reveals that many landlords refuse to accept vouchers, although voucher denial rates vary widely. Denial rates were highest in Fort Worth (78 percent) and Los Angeles (76 percent) and only somewhat lower in Philadelphia (67 percent). Rates were substantially lower in Newark (31 percent) and Washington, DC (15 percent). Rejection rates were higher in lower-poverty neighborhoods, suggesting that voucher holders who want to find housing in an “opportunity” area—perhaps close to high-quality schools, jobs, and transportation—will face even more rejection.
For the most part, testers who found a landlord who would accept vouchers and show them an available unit were treated similarly to control testers who did not have a voucher, with a few exceptions: voucher holders could schedule apartment showings but were more likely than their matched control testers to be stood up by the landlord. However, landlords who accepted vouchers appeared to scrutinize the control testers a bit more—for example, asking about income and employment more often—suggesting they understood the value of the voucher in increasing a household’s ability to pay the rent.
This pilot study’s findings show that landlords are not passive actors in the HCV program. They have incredible power in deciding if voucher holders can use housing benefits and, ultimately, where voucher holders can live.
Policy changes could encourage landlord participation, facilitate searches
Our report describes several policy and program changes to encourage landlord participation and to facilitate voucher holders’ searches. These are some recommendations for policymakers:
- Pursue legal protections for voucher holders. While our study did not evaluate the impact of local source-of-income protections, we did find a notable pattern: Landlord refusal of vouchers is more common in jurisdictions without source-of-income protections. Research suggests legal protections for voucher holders might help.
- Encourage landlord participation and recruit landlords, particularly in low-poverty neighborhoods. HUD and public housing agencies could strengthen financial incentives, or remove perceived disincentives, for landlords to participate. These services could increase housing choice in the program, help program participants access better neighborhoods, and improve voucher holders’ long-term well-being.
- Set more-competitive rents and improve program management. Adopting payment standards that are better aligned with market rents could make the HCV program more appealing to landlords in high-rent markets.
- Expand search time and provide housing search assistance. Extending search times from 60 days to 120 days would give voucher holders more opportunity to identify landlords with units available. Voucher holders may also benefit from housing search assistance.
Implications for future testing
This pilot study explored different testing methodologies to inform the design and implementation of future studies. These are some key considerations:
- Voucher acceptance tests and in-person paired tests yield the most valuable information. In contrast, telephone tests gleaned little unique information about differential treatment.
- Tester profiles must reflect HCV program rules. Any rigorous paired-testing study of voucher-holder discrimination must incorporate HCV-specific policies and requirements to minimize risk of detection and ensure that findings are credible.
- Assessing the role of race or ethnicity in voucher-holder discrimination is challenging. High voucher denial rates undermined our ability to conduct enough in-person tests to conclusively analyze whether differential treatment against voucher holders varies by race.
- Conducting testing in low-poverty areas is feasible. Testing in low-poverty “opportunity” areas is feasible without oversampling.
- For national estimates of discrimination against voucher holders, use a multiphase approach. A robust, multiphase design could accommodate variations in denial rates.
More research on landlords is needed. Interviews with landlords who reject, set conditions on, or accept vouchers would shed light on their perceptions of the HCV program and voucher holders.
A Pilot Study of Landlord Acceptance of Housing Choice Vouchers: Executive Summary
The full study is forthcoming in September.