D.C. landlords discriminating against holders of housing vouchers, study says

Local,DC,Real Estate,Liz Farmer
An investigation has found that landlords illegally discriminate against D.C. tenants with housing vouchers on a regular basis, a finding the city calls "unacceptable."

According to a study conducted by the Equal Rights Center, 15 percent of 91 D.C. landlords refused to accept housing vouchers when a potential tenant inquired about using one. The refusal is a violation of D.C. civil rights law that protects against income discrimination.

"In one blatant example, the housing provider immediately hung up the phone when the tester asked if he or she could use a [voucher] to pay rent," the report from the nonprofit civil rights group said.

The study was conducted using people posing as potential tenants.

Dena Michaelson, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Housing Authority, which distributes the vouchers, said the figure "sounded about right." She said the agency works with tenants so they know their rights when seeking housing and it has education programs for landlords, but that those measures are not foolproof.

"From our perspective, that 15 percent refusal rate, that's not acceptable," Michaelson said, adding that the agency has asked for the names of the properties that illegally refused tenants for outreach purposes.

Families who earn less than $30,000 a year can qualify for a voucher. Holders are required to contribute at least 30 percent of their income toward rent while the voucher covers the rest, up to a rent cap.

A similar study by the center in 2005 found that rejections based on housing vouchers occurred 26 percent of the time. Don Kahl, executive director of the Equal Rights Center, attributed the drop to the work by the city and equal-housing advocates to educate renters and landlords on the income provisions in the D.C. Human Rights Act.

However, he said the effort is hampered by a transient community and varying discrimination laws. Barbara Sard, housing policy director at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities think tank, said D.C. still has a lot of work to do.

"You never get perfect compliance with the law," she said. "It does seem like doing some enforcement has helped, but it's still nowhere near where you would want it."

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