Realtors and landlords are finding ways to reject voucher holders with essentially no consequence through the setting of exorbitant income requirements.’

NYC Commission on Human Rights

A poster aimed at curbing housing discrimination.

Fair Housing Laws in New York aim to offer protections to voucher holders and ensure that denying them the ability to use their voucher for an apartment is a form of illegal discrimination. However, real estate companies that operate in bad faith continue to avoid renting to those who have housing vouchers. The kind of discrimination whereby some of these companies simply outright reject tenants because of their vouchers is widely known about and reported on. In fact, our organization, Housing Rights Initiative, investigated these real estate companies and filed a lawsuit against 88 landlords and brokers in New York City. 

However, an even more insidious form of discrimination threatens to decimate the Section 8 program as we know it. Realtors and landlords are finding ways to reject voucher holders with essentially no consequence through the setting of exorbitant income requirements.

What are income requirements? Many landlords, brokers, and property managers in New York City require an individual’s gross annual income to equal 40 times their monthly rent. Most New Yorkers make significantly less than what’s needed to rent in New York City and in many neighborhoods, one would have to make more than 100 percent of the borough-wide median income to simply qualify for an apartment. 

So how do income requirements affect voucher holders? There are a couple of different scenarios a voucher holder could find themselves in. What if a realtor or landlord tells a voucher holder that there is an income requirement of 40 times the rent (or greater) to lease the unit, and that the Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) would not be considered as a source of income? This realtor or landlord would be discriminating against the prospective tenant, as their income without a voucher would never be close to reaching the income requirement. 

Another more sophisticated form of income discrimination takes place when a realtor or landlord states that Section 8 would be accepted, but that there is an income requirement of 40 times the rent (or greater) for the unit. In almost all cases, the landlord will set this requirement on the listed rent instead of what the tenant will be paying towards the rent. For example, if the rent for a unit is $1,500 and the tenant portion an individual with a voucher would be contributing is $500, the calculation should be 40 x $500, equaling a required yearly income of $20,000, which would be a potential threshold a voucher holder could meet. However, most landlords will set an income requirement on the listed rent, which in this example would be 40 x $1,500, equaling a yearly income of $60,000—a much more exorbitant requirement. This application of an income requirement inherently prices out Section 8 voucher holders, regardless of the value of their voucher.

When income requirements are applied to Section 8 voucher holders, you create an environment in which voucher holders would never be able to afford to rent a majority of apartments in New York City. According to the New York City Housing Authority, the average income of a Section 8 household in 2019 was $17,150. For context, the average rent for a studio apartment in that same year was $2,700, meaning families of any size would not even be able to rent a studio with income requirements in place. This is an incredibly threatening issue to the Section 8 program. 

New York City is attempting to counter this kind of covert discrimination. The City Commission for Human Rights (CCHR) interprets the law as preempting any such calculation; when a voucher program calculates the tenant’s rent based on their income, the agency administering the voucher has already determined that they can afford to pay their required portion. “Where the tenants’ rental portion is calculated based on the tenants’ income, it is a violation of the Law to impose any additional income requirements on applicants for housing,” CCHR also asserts. However, while we may have the protections in place, we need a proper enforcement mechanism that can counter this discrimination in practice. 

What will happen to voucher holders inside and outside of New York who have to face this complicated and little known form of discrimination? What is stopping landlords from setting income requirements that price out interested renters who have a voucher? The answers to these questions may be more straightforward than we realize.Localities that have source of income discrimination laws need to follow the example set in New York City to create explicit language to counter the practice. States like California already have income requirement protections in their laws and New Mexico has a bill in its legislature that will confront this issue head on.

In New York, local governments and state leaders in Albany need to address the issue head on and provide agencies and organizations with funding and resources to create a robust enforcement mechanism and conduct comprehensive discrimination testing. And nationally, our federal government should bolster Fair Housing laws to make sure Section 8 recipients and all voucher holders can effectively use their vouchers to find housing. 

Housing Rights Initiative will continue to educate the public about this kind of discrimination, and combat it however it can. Because in many cases, the only thing that stands in the way of a voucher holder obtaining housing is the discriminatory practices of a broker or landlord.

Joshua Murillo is the deputy director of Housing Rights Initiative, a housing watchdog group.