Delores Bell rents an apartment in the Frankford neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia, but she wants to move to the Germantown neighborhood to be close to her aging parents and to rent a bigger place so she can be a foster parent.

Making the great-grandmother’s move more complicated is how she plans to pay for her new apartment. She gets a subsidy that pays a portion of her rent through the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly known as Section 8.

She’s having trouble finding places in her price range, and others turn her away.

“I’ve called 10 to 20 places, and they’ve all told me they don’t accept the vouchers,” Bell said at a City Council hearing Monday. “It’s hurtful at times to be stereotyped like this. It doesn’t have to be this hard.”

She was one of several voucher holders who described difficulties finding housing at a hearing to examine discrimination against Philadelphians who use government rental subsidies. Council members and legal aid groups said that they regularly encounter residents who have been turned away from rentals because they use vouchers and that those residents are shocked to learn the behavior is illegal.

Discrimination based on income

For more than 40 years, Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance has banned rental property owners from discriminating against potential renters based on the source of the income they will use to pay rent, including housing vouchers and other public assistance.

But it happens all over the city anyway, because the housing protection isn’t broadly enforced and relies on complaints from residents. A 2018 study by the Urban Institute found that more than two-thirds of the city’s landlords refused to accept vouchers and that rental property owners often reject voucher holders even when they can afford to pay, especially in wealthier neighborhoods.

Rental property owners who get several applicants for one rental can choose one that comes with less red tape without expressly saying they passed over tenants because of their vouchers.

But some landlords outright say in ads for rentals and in communication with tenants that they do not accept housing vouchers. They feel comfortable enough to do this, Councilmember Kendra Brooks said, because “enforcement of these policies is so weak.”

The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which is responsible for investigating all types of discrimination complaints and can impose fines and order landlords to change their practices, has six investigators, said Kia Ghee, executive director. She acknowledged at Monday’s hearing that the commission is reactive instead of proactive in its enforcement of the city’s protections against discrimination based on source of income.

“Frankly, the number of complaints that we receive are not matching the magnitude of the crisis that’s being described here today,” she said.

A barrier to ‘safe, quality, and affordable housing’

Sari Bernstein, a staff attorney at the Philadelphia-based Public Interest Law Center, called housing-voucher discrimination “a pervasive issue in Philadelphia that prevents low-income renters of color from obtaining safe, quality, and affordable housing in neighborhoods of their choice.”

More than 80% of the roughly 20,000 Philadelphia households with rental vouchers are Black, according to the city. The average household size of a voucher holder is three people, and the average household income is about $16,000, according to the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which administers the voucher program and offers cash, compensation for damages, and other incentives to try to get landlords to rent to households that use vouchers.

HAPCO Philadelphia, the city’s largest landlord association, which is made up mostly of small rental property owners, works with PHA and has hosted seminars for members and nonmembers to encourage them to proactively rent to people with vouchers. A large portion of the city’s landlords who have tenants with vouchers are members, according to HAPCO. But the organization has found that many landlords don’t want to take on what they see as added risks of a high-needs population.

As housing costs continue to rise, households with low incomes struggle to afford to pay rent, especially in desirable areas with lots of neighborhood amenities. Households with subsidies pay 30% of their income for rent, and federal funds cover the rest.

But available funds cover only a fraction of the need, so wait lists are years long, and many households that are eligible for assistance can’t get it. Those that do get housing vouchers face a lack of available homes they can afford.

At Monday’s hearing, advocates and city agencies asked the city for better public education so tenants and landlords understand that refusing to accept housing subsidies is illegal; a more streamlined process to get renters into homes; faster investigations into complaints; and more funding both to encourage landlords to accept vouchers and to investigate possible discrimination.

The nonprofit Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania, for example, which sues landlords to get them to comply with housing protections, sends out testers who are essentially mystery shoppers who pose as renters and try to get approved for homes.

Over the last two years, the organization has tested for compliance with the city’s source of income protections in rental housing, said executive director Rachel Wentworth. In 62 “tester contacts,” 42 were told that vouchers were not accepted. Ten were told voucher holders could apply. In the rest of the cases, landlords didn’t give an answer or told testers the unit was already rented.

Wentworth said that although this is a small and nonrepresentative sample of rental transactions, it does “tell us that source of income protections are routinely and blatantly disregarded by landlords, property managers, and rental agents throughout the city.”