Often it seems like everyone loves Section 8. Some landlord lobbyists like the program because it protects the poor without reaching into the pockets of property owners. Homeless advocates yearn for more Section 8 because, unlike city-funded transitional programs, it’s permanent. Many people who want to save public housing advocate converting NYCHA apartments to it because, unlike traditional public housing, Section 8 has a nationwide, bipartisan constituency.
A terrific WNYC-Daily News-CUNY graduate school investigation reveals that not everyone loves Section 8, however. The story reports that landlords turn down new tenants bearing Section 8 vouchers and that property owners already in the system sometimes deliberately fail inspections so they can leave Section 8 and evict their tenants.
It’s a pretty disturbing problem, given that Section 8—which some 87,000 New York households receive and 121,000 are on the waiting list to get—has become such a backstop to failures and strains in other housing programs.
One element of the problem exposed by the News et al—that of landlords refusing Section 8—was targeted in 2008 by a city law that banned “source of income” discrimination by landlords. As long as you can afford the rent with whatever legally-obtained resources you bring to the table (cash, Section 8, HASA benefits, you name it), a landlord can’t shun you. The law was passed over Mayor Bloomberg’s veto when Bill de Blasio was chairman of the Council’s General Welfare Committee. It is enforced by the Commission on Human Rights, which has the power to fine landlords who violate it.
And the commission has done so. In 2014, it ordered one landlord to pay a civil penalty of $2,500 and undergo anti-discrimination training for “posting a discriminatory advertisement refusing to accept Section 8 vouchers as a lawful source of income.” A year earlier the commission ordered a landlord to fork over $5,000 in emotional distress damages in a similar case. In 2012, one tenant received $9,000 in reimbursement for payments she made when a landlord refused a Section 8 voucher.
The list goes on. According to commission’s 2015 Annual Report, it “quadrupled the number of investigations into allegations that landlords and brokers discriminated against tenants who seek to use government-funded rental assistance, filing 90 source-of-income cases in 2015, up from 22 in 2014.” Roughly one in nine discrimination cases handled by the commission last year involved source-of-income allegations.
Given that a medium-sized city lives in New York’s Section 8 housing, the commission will never be able to keep up with every case of discrimination. But an infusion of resources could equip it to do more. De Blasio has beefed up the agency considerably—the budget ($12 million) and headcount (121) proposed for the 2017 fiscal year beginning in July are roughly twice what the commission had to work with when the mayor took office. But it is still far smaller than it was, say, in 1991, when the agency had a headcount of 223 people, and the city’s housing crisis wasn’t nearly as intense as it is now.