Bill seeks protections for renters on federal subsidy - Albuquerque Journal

Bill seeks protections for renters on federal subsidy

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

For the last seven years, Elizabeth has slept in her car, spending nights under a friend’s awning, in parking lots or other spots around Albuquerque she deems safe enough to close her eyes and rest.

The 58-year-old actually has the means to rent an apartment thanks to a federally funded voucher meant to combat homelessness. While she would have to pay 30% of her income, the voucher would cover the balance on a place with a monthly rent of about $1,400.

She just cannot find anywhere to use it.

“I’ve spoken with over 100 properties at least, and I’m probably on about 50 waiting lists,” said Elizabeth, who is identified by her first name due to the stigma surrounding homelessness.

Elizabeth has somewhat specific needs; she wants to avoid lower-priced neighborhoods around Central Avenue because she worries she will plunge back into substance abuse if she returns to that environment she already knows well. She also needs a residence that will accommodate her mom.

But she said the challenge is partly due to the fact that many property managers simply will not accept vouchers.

Some even advertise such exclusions, said Rachel Biggs of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, which provided 103 households with vouchers in the last year.

“Right now, it is perfectly legal and acceptable – because we don’t have these protections in place – for a property management firm or landlord to post on a posting ‘No Section 8’ or ‘No vouchers.’ … (The voucher holders are) not even able to make a case that they would be a good tenant,” said Biggs, chief strategy officer for the AHCH.

Brook Bassan

But that could change in Albuquerque. City Councilors Pat Davis and Brook Bassan have introduced legislation to prevent landlords from refusing to rent to tenants because they use vouchers. It would also stop them from imposing extra requirements – like higher security deposits – on those relying on such rent subsidies.

Bassan said she sees the new legislation as a way to stop more people from falling into homelessness.

“Landlords definitely have this tendency to not necessarily want to offer housing to people who have a voucher but that is not (based on) a fair stereotype,” she said.

The Davis/Bassan bill would update the city’s existing Human Rights Ordinance, which already prohibits housing discrimination based on race, national origin, religion and other factors. If passed, it would add similar protections for those with any “lawful and verifiable” source of income, such as housing vouchers, Social Security and public assistance. It has been referred to the council’s Finance & Government Operations committee.

In a 2020 assessment of Albuquerque’s affordable housing needs, the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization, specifically recommended such a policy. It cited research that found voucher rejection was highest in communities without laws barring source-of-income discrimination.

“States and localities have been increasingly interested in adopting these protections – for example, Maryland and Virginia both passed laws in their most recent sessions. … The city should consider adopting legislation that prohibits source-of-income discrimination and includes a specific prohibition against voucher discrimination,” the Urban Institute wrote in the 2020 report commissioned by the city of Albuquerque.

Pat Davis

Tight housing market

Davis said local homeless service providers say there are “a couple hundred housing vouchers” in the hands of residents who still cannot find a place to live.

The Albuquerque Housing Authority currently has about 3,200 clients housed via federally funded vouchers but about 150 more who have one but have been unable to use them.

“That’s just ours,” AHA Executive Director Linda Bridge said, noting that there are other agencies administering vouchers around the metro area, too.

Bridge said the agency has a growing number of voucher recipients requiring extended terms because it is taking longer to locate housing. She said it is not clear whether it is voucher discrimination or simply the tight market and rising rents that have left fewer units available in voucher-holders’ price range.

While AHA has fostered positive relationships with landlords throughout the city – and tries to remind them that its vouchers are a reliable source of rent payments even in a rocky economy – she said properties must meet certain standards in order to accept them. In a competitive market, she said that might make a landlord choose a typical renter over one with a voucher.

“The process can take a little longer (with the voucher system), and when there are multiple people competing for a unit, landlords have a lot more options,” she said.

The Davis/Bassan bill also includes $150,000 to study and develop an “incentive program” that would encourage – or make it easier for – landlords to take vouchers, perhaps by helping them bring properties into compliance with relevant standards, and another $50,000 to develop and distribute relevant educational materials to landlords and renters.

“We’ve been funding more housing vouchers (in the city), but we haven’t created more housing stock,” Davis said. “We do have landlords who just are uncomfortable taking voucher folks because of extra reporting requirements or they’re not sure how to properly vet them, and we want to close that gap.

“We do have available housing stock, and if we can make those more accessible, we can get people off the street faster.”

But the proposal is garnering pushback from the Apartment Association of New Mexico.

The bill would also bar discrimination against tenants whose income includes gifts and inheritances, which association Executive Director Alan LaSeck said are “not guaranteed sources of income.”

And he argues the effort to create a new protected class would likely not work out as intended.

“You may see owners tighten restrictions. … They may be looking deeper into credit reports, may require higher deposits, first and last months’ rent,” LaSeck said. “Our real issue is the people this bill seeks to help it will actually hurt.”

While the bill prohibits source-of-income discrimination, it does not prohibit landlords from doing income and credit checks on prospective tenants.

‘Preconceived notions’

Biggs with Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless said her agency surveyed 176 local landlords a year ago and found that only 35% of them were accepting vouchers. The overwhelming majority in the survey, she said, “effectively priced out” voucher clients via their income requirements.

It currently takes AHCH clients an average of 60 days to find a place to use their vouchers, though it can stretch longer, she said.

“It’s quite devastating for our families to wait so long to go through the process to get a voucher and then spend sometimes 120 days living in your car or in a shelter or an encampment waiting to find housing with that voucher,” Biggs said.

Alex Paisano with the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness said people with vouchers already face barriers to housing; they might have an eviction history or may have lost much of their personal documentation – like Social Security cards or birth certificates – while living on the streets. But they are also battling what she called “preconceived notions.”

“There are a lot of misconceptions about what it would be like to rent to someone with a voucher,” said Paisano, who oversees the NMCEH program that refers clients to housing providers.

Officials at the Barrett Foundation, which has a program that pays rent for about 60 households, said they regularly see clients screened out for the mere fact they are using a subsidy.

Heather Hoffman, Barrett’s executive director, said she has not reviewed the new Albuquerque bill but the idea of eliminating “that particular ability to essentially discriminate against clients just for being in the program or having been successful in getting a voucher, on the surface of it … it absolutely sounds to us like a positive way forward.”

Elizabeth, who was first granted a voucher last May but has not secured housing, said landlords who do not accept vouchers often blame negative experiences with past voucher holders. Local homeless service providers acknowledge that problems can occur, though Paisano said some agencies will cover property damage costs and many provide clients additional supports and case management to ensure their success after transitioning to housing.

Despite saying she is “used to being let down” after a life of difficulty, Elizabeth said she has not given up on the idea of moving out of her car and into a home.

“I pray to God every day I can find a place,” she said.

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