By late July, state and local government agencies had only distributed 11 percent of almost $50 billion in emergency rental assistance (ERA) funding, but data from the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey show that by late August, 15 percent of renters reported being behind on their rent.
The recent end of the federal eviction moratorium puts renters who are behind on their rent at further risk of housing instability and eviction. Approximately 2.1 million renters are concerned about eviction and live in places with no state or local eviction moratoria in place.
Despite the needs of both renters and landlords, some landlords are not accepting rent relief. We don’t have much data on how many landlords are refusing rental relief or their motivations for doing so, but we know that the outcomes can be dire for tenants, especially low-income renters and renters of color, who often face housing discrimination when using federal assistance.
One way to protect tenants is through source-of-income discrimination protection laws. Recently, some states (PDF) and localities (PDF) have extended source-of-income discrimination protection laws to explicitly cover ERA recipients, though many existing laws are written broadly enough to encompass all forms of income and any form of rental assistance.
Where are people protected by source-of-income discrimination laws?
Source-of-income discrimination laws prevent landlords from denying or otherwise discriminating against renters based on the income they use to pay rent. Depending on the statute, they might protect renters who receive Social Security or disability payments, alimony, or federal rental assistance. Many states and local governments passed these laws in response to widespread discrimination against renters who receive Housing Choice Vouchers, effectively banning rental listings that say “No Section 8.”
But no federal laws explicitly ban this type of discrimination. In the absence of federal policy, 16 states, the District of Columbia, and more than 100 cities and counties have banned source-of-income discrimination against voucher holders.
Since 2009, the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC) has been collecting information on source-of-income discrimination laws (PDF) that protect renters with Housing Choice Vouchers. In collaboration with PRRAC, Urban Institute researchers developed a dataset that includes the codes and digitizes the key features of 120 state and local laws passed between 1971 and July 2021.
Not every source-of-income discrimination law covers voucher recipients, and not every law covers the COVID-19 ERA Program. But it appears many do.
In 2020, New Jersey explicitly defined in guidance that COVID-19 ERA is covered under their antidiscrimination laws. In other places, language in source-of-income discrimination laws may cover ERA, especially where “income” is defined broadly to include any federal, state, or local housing assistance.
Demographic parallels can also be drawn between Housing Choice Voucher and ERA recipients, who both tend to be disproportionately people of color and prone to housing instability.
The map below shows the states, counties, and cities that have passed source-of-income protections that specifically protect voucher holders. Using American Community Survey and Population Estimates Program data, we estimate that 22 million—nearly half of all renter households in the US—are currently covered by these protections. And based on numbers from the Household Pulse Survey, American Community Survey, and Population Estimates Program, we find more than 3 million households in these places are behind in rent.
But local policymakers will need to determine whether these laws would require landlords to accept ERA funds and under what circumstances.
What role each level of government can play to protect renters
With ERA distribution still underway, the federal eviction moratorium vacated, and state and local eviction moratoria expiring, state and local governments could strengthen protection for renters by extending source-of-income protection laws to ERA recipients.
States and localities could consider crafting such laws where they don’t already exist. In places with these laws, governments can issue clear guidance that explains what types of income their law pertains to and that landlords may be subject to those laws in the case of ERA. Localities can provide direction on how renters can obtain legal assistance that protects them while they seek ERA.
Source-of-income protections have also been debated at the federal level and have been proposed in legislation. As the federal government continues to grapple with slow rollout of ERA funding, these laws may come back into the national debate as another tool to help stabilize households.
In the meantime, the federal government could encourage states and localities to clarify whether their source-of-income discrimination laws apply to ERA through future rounds of guidance on the program and provide tools and resources to support robust fair housing enforcement at all levels of government.