New Housing Anti-discrimination Laws now in Effect

Jul 7, 2020

Housing advocates in Virginia are celebrating landmark anti-discrimination laws that took effect July 1st.

One prohibits landlords from turning away renters based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. And another could help deconcentrate poverty and racial segregation.

Until this month, landlords could turn away would-be tenants for using money from social security, child support or rental assistance to pay their bills. As of July 1st, that is no longer legal for property managers or owners with more than 4 units in Virginia.

And yet for those who use supports like Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section-8, sometimes there’s more to income discrimination than dollars and cents.  "Whether or not a housing provider accepts a Housing Choice Voucher impacts, generally, whether or not they are denying people on the basis of race," says Alex Guzmán, director of fair housing at Housing Opportunities Made Equal Virginia.

Guzmán’s colleague, Teneika Jones, helps voucher holders find homes in so-called high-opportunity neighborhoods.   "Places where there good schools, low poverty rates, transportation, different things like that," she says.

For a lot of her clients, many of whom are Black women with children, those areas are often inaccessible. Every case is different, she says, but most have encountered landlords who wouldn’t accept federal housing assistance.

I spoke with voucher holders who say they’ve also come up against this, but none felt comfortable going public with their story. Jones thinks she knows why.  "It’s a lot of shame associated with it. I think that people have associated vouchers with bad or negative, um, negative views just over time."

A 2018 study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that source of income laws can make it easier for people who use vouchers to move into neighborhoods with more resources, but in order to be effective, they have to carry strong enforcement mechanisms. 

In Virginia, housing discrimination claims rarely make it to court, Guzmán explains, and when they do, they seldom resolve systemic issues.  "You are addressing an individual act, one at a time. It’s like playing a game of whack-a-mole."

Sara Pratt is a civil rights lawyer and a former fair housing enforcement official at the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She explains that education for housing advocates and providers is also key to making sure everyone follows the rules. "All of them should take the time to become aware of this provision and look for resources to understand one: what they need to do, and two: landlords should be talking to the Section-8 programs at their agencies. "

Educating landlords who qualify under the law is something Patrick McCloud has spent a lot of time on lately. McCloud is CEO of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, which lobbied against the new regulations.

He says he’s not opposed to working with people who receive housing assistance, but he doesn’t like being forced into a three-way contract with both a tenant and their voucher administrator.  "If there was an easy way to explain this process, you would’ve never seen the industry objecting to source of funds as a protected class."

As for Teneika Jones, she’s hopeful that the source of income protections will make a difference for the people she helps.  "And if you just give them a chance, I think that most of them will surprise you and come out on the other end better for it."

It’s a step in the right direction, she says, but there’s still work to do.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.