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Report shows discrimination against housing voucher recipients

SouthCoast Fair Housing reveals housing limits during State House event Tuesday

SouthCoast Fair Housing released a report entitled “It’s About the Voucher: Source of Income Discrimination in Rhode Island” just before the State House received a dusting of snow Tuesday morning.

Research for the report focused on participants in the largest federally subsidized rental assistance program in the country, the Housing Choice Voucher Program. In Rhode Island, the voucher program makes 34 percent of rental options affordable to recipients. But income-based discrimination against voucher recipients reduces their options to seven percent of houses on the market, according to the SCFH report.

“Vouchers are meant to allow tenants to rent a safe, decent apartment in a neighborhood of their choice,” said SCFH Legal Fellow Claudia Wack. But in practice, “program participants are often turned away from housing precisely because they receive this subsidy.”

About 9,300 Rhode Islanders rely on housing choice vouchers to subsidize their rent payments, according to the report. While community advocates had observed income discrimination locally, none had assembled these observations into this scale of statewide data-based documentation prior to this report, Wack said.

Rhode Island law does not currently prevent landlords from discriminating on the basis of income. In contrast with states including Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut, Rhode Island landlords may include language in advertisements that bars voucher recipients from applying for tenancy, or they may refuse them during the application process, according to the Providence Journal.

SCFH began conducting research about income-based discrimination in February 2018, after bill H7528 passed the R.I. Senate before dying in the House. Last November, SCFH continued their research by investigating a set of online rental advertisements, first looking for evidence of discrimination and then conducting phone calls to housing providers selected from the online sample. The team found that 34 percent of houses available for rent across five websites “should have been affordable to a tenant with a voucher.” But “more than six percent explicitly discouraged applications from voucher recipients, usually with statements like ‘no government programs’ or ‘I don’t take vouchers of any type,’” Wack explained.

SCFH also conducted a phone audit because they suspected that the remaining 27 percent availability of houses still “likely didn’t tell the entire story.” After following up on these listings — which, from their online advertisements, appeared to be affordable and free of discriminatory language or standards — the team found that 63 percent of those landlords refused to accept an application from a tenant with a voucher.

“Zooming out, what those combined numbers mean is that of all those original listings we observed online, a Rhode Island tenant (with a voucher) will ultimately be shut out of 93 percent of units,” Wack said.

“It’s really crushing to people to have all these doors slammed in their faces, oftentimes in a moment that should represent a new leaf, a new opportunity,” Wack said. SCFH collaborated with students involved in Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere and an Urban Studies Departmental Independent Reading and Research Project from last semester to conduct their research. Sarah Conlisk ’20, Annelise Ernst ’21, Lucas Fried ’21 and Nathaniel Pettit ’20 — who formed one of five research groups of the DISP — spoke about the report at the event . Over a dozen University students attended the event.

“HOPE students played a critical role in scanning online listings for discrimination for a two-week period, significantly contributing to the report’s findings,”  Ernst said.

Oscar Dupuy D’Angeac ’17, a co-founder of the media advocacy nonprofit Signs of Providence, helped organize the DISP at Brown. “It’s time for academia and the resources that that world entails to get on board with these efforts, because there’s space for really valuable collaboration, as we’ve seen with this class,” he told The Herald. Pettit, who is also a Site Leader for HOPE, echoed this sentiment. “A lot of things that our community partners need is just bandwidth, and that’s something that HOPE can provide in a lot of instances,” he told The Herald.

Students and SCFH representatives were joined by two state legislators who are sponsoring legislation that would codify prevention of income-based discrimination.

Rep. Anastasia Williams (D-Providence) introduced H5137 Jan. 17 to “prohibit discrimination in housing against those persons who have a lawful source of income.” The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee the same day. Sen. Harold Metts (D-Providence) planned to introduce a companion bill yesterday, but snowy weather delayed State House activity.

Wack also noted that the present legality of income-based discrimination can effectively permit other forms of discrimination, including racial discrimination. “Passing this law will actually strengthen … our ability to enforce existing fair housing laws,” she said.

Wack was “encouraged” that Gov. Gina Raimondo recently expressed support for legislation preventing income discrimination.

“For years and years we’ve been trying to pass this legislation. … It’s really, really cool to finally have these numbers and to be able to present it this way because it makes our case for including source-of-income protections even stronger,” Dupuy-D’Angeac said.

The event at the State House was also hosted by HOPE and Homes RI Income Discrimination.


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