The blog of the Urban Institute
February 15, 2019

Los Angeles County is taking steps to prevent discrimination against housing voucher holders

Last month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to dedicate $5 million to preventing housing discrimination and to develop an ordinance to protect housing choice voucher holders from source of income discrimination. The supervisors have until May (PDF) to draft the ordinance’s language and have not yet developed a timeline for enacting it, but these actions are a step toward expanding voucher holders’ housing options.

The ordinance will cover unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, and cities within the county will need to pass their own laws. Some are doing so; last year, courts upheld a Santa Monica law, and the Los Angeles City Council is considering a similar law.

Housing limitations for low-income renters in Los Angeles

Los Angeles County, like much of the country, is experiencing a massive housing crisis. The area is one of the nation’s most expensive places to live and has one of the lowest rental-housing vacancy rates—just over 3 percent. In total, only 26 affordable rental units exist per each 100 extremely low–income households. And more than 50,000 people experience homelessness every year in Los Angeles County, nearly 10 percent of whom are children younger than 18.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher Program helps low-income renters ease the financial burden of securing decent, affordable housing. But there aren’t nearly enough vouchers to go around, and families are often on waiting lists for years before receiving one, especially in Los Angeles County. The Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles (HACoLA) currently has 40,000 families on its waiting list. The list has been closed since 2009, with an estimated wait time of more than 11 years.

People lucky enough to receive vouchers still face challenges using them. Our recent study of landlord discrimination in five US jurisdictions revealed that finding a unit for rent with a voucher can be daunting. In Los Angeles and our four other study sites, landlords routinely reject voucher holders from renting units.

Los Angeles was the most challenging of the five sites in which to find housing with a voucher. We screened nearly 140,000 ads to find units available for rent and affordable with a voucher, and the results averaged about 137 ads per single voucher-affordable unit. Even after finding an ad for an affordable unit, we often heard “no” from landlords when we called to ask whether they accepted vouchers—76 percent of Los Angeles landlords stated that they did not.

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In low-poverty Los Angeles neighborhoods, where we expect to find improved access to educational and economic opportunities, the denial rate was even higher: 82 percent of landlords in neighborhoods with poverty rates below 10 percent refused vouchers. Research has shown the benefits of living in low-poverty, opportunity-rich neighborhoods. But our findings suggest that in Los Angles, discrimination is so prevalent that low-poverty neighborhoods are nearly impossible for voucher holders to reach.

Tactics to prevent voucher discrimination

Because vouchers holders are not a protected class under the federal Fair Housing Act (PDF), state laws or local ordinances control the implementation of antidiscrimination protections. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis suggests that only one in three voucher holders lives in a place protected by a state or local source of income discrimination law.

In California, a state law protects against discrimination based on some sources of income, such as Social Security payments or the type of job a potential tenant holds, but it does not identify housing vouchers as a protected source of income. As a result, local jurisdictions in California looking to protect voucher holders need to pass their own local laws. Once its new ordinance is enacted, Los Angeles County will join 81 local jurisdictions (PDF) nationwide—including 13 in California—where income discrimination laws covering housing vouchers are in place.

Since we concluded our voucher discrimination testing in 2017, HACoLA has made efforts to encourage landlord participation. It created the Homeless Incentive Program, which will provide holding fees, vacancy loss payments, and damage claim coverage to landlords and help voucher holders with application fees and move-in costs. HACoLA is working with other area housing authorities to create similar programs, including in the city of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pasadena, and Glendale. HACoLA could add to these efforts by ensuring that voucher payment standards are in line with the local market rents, including adopting Small Area Fair Market Rents.

We know from our study that discrimination persists even in places with voucher protections in place. In Newark, New Jersey, and Washington, DC, we found substantially lower denial rates than sites without them—31 percent in Newark and 15 percent in DC. But in Philadelphia, which also has a law in place, we found that 67 percent of landlords still refused vouchers. Recent reports from St. Louis, which passed a source of income ordinance but does not have strong enforcement efforts or penalties in place, suggest that laws alone are not enough to prevent discrimination.

Enforcement organizations should support testing for both systemic discrimination—such as testing a range of properties presumably available to voucher holders to estimate the prevalence of discrimination in a jurisdiction—as well as enforcement testing to gauge whether specific landlords, property owners, or management companies are complying with the law. Enforcement could be coupled with outreach and education so that landlords and voucher holders understand the various dimensions of the program and new protections. The board of supervisors will need to work with local fair housing organizations to ensure the new law is effective.

HACoLA and other agencies in the Los Angeles area will also need to monitor their new efforts’ effectiveness, such as engaging with landlords and voucher holders about their experience with the program, tracking voucher search times and success rates, and tracking where voucher holders live to see if they are accessing opportunity-rich areas.

Vouchers are a scarce and important resource for low-income families, especially in high-cost places like Los Angeles County. Source of income protections coupled with programmatic efforts to encourage landlord participation and support for voucher holders’ housing searches can help ensure the program fulfills its goal to help families obtain safe, stable housing in high-quality neighborhoods.

Photo by Karl Tapales via GettyImages.

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