HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher program helps low-income families cover the cost of renting private, market-rate housing units, which has proven effective in reducing overcrowding, homelessness, and housing instability. However, the program’s ultimate success depends on having voucher holders find and secure suitable housing as well as having landlords willing to accept vouchers as payment.
HUD has studied landlord participation, finding evidence that:
- Landlords refuse to rent to voucher holders because of negative experiences with the program.
- Voucher acceptance rates are low across the country, with denials more common in low-poverty than high-poverty areas.
- Landlord participation has decreased in recent years, further concentrating voucher households in areas with high poverty rates.
These trends undermine housing vouchers as a tool to combat poverty and provide families, particularly those with young children, with greater economic opportunities. To enhance the impact and effectiveness of the HCV program, policymakers must evaluate the reasons landlords do not accept vouchers and work to boost acceptance.
Housing inspections required by the HCV program are a major disincentive for landlord participation. Public housing authorities carry out pre-move and annual inspections to ensure homes meet quality standards, checking for criteria related to safety, sanitation, and more. Property owners often report waiting days or weeks for inspections, delaying their ability to fill empty units. Inspections can also lead to mandated, costly repairs. In HUD-sponsored studies as well as listening forums and focus groups, landlords cited the unpredictability and inconsistency of inspections and required maintenance as a primary reason for refusing vouchers.
Landlords also cite difficult experiences with (or distrust of) PHAs as a primary reason for refusing vouchers, as well as the time-consuming nature of coordinating with PHAs. Major problems include the paperwork required by property owners to rent to voucher recipients and late or insufficient payments by PHAs. Landlords also express frustration when PHAs do not take their side during owner-tenant conflicts and more generally feel they have less control over their business when dealing with the governmental entities.
To address landlord concerns and incentivize increased HCV participation, Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND) introduced the bipartisan Choice in Affordable Housing Act (S. 1820). The bill would offer a financial bonus to PHAs that retain a dedicated landlord liaison on staff to manage PHA-landlord issues and disputes. To reduce inspection delays, the bill would allow units to meet voucher inspection requirements if they have been inspected in the past year. The bill also would offer incentives to landlords, including signing bonuses to landlords in low-poverty areas and security deposit assistance to protect against damages.
Reforms by PHAs can also simplify and expedite the HCV process, such as giving each landlord a single point of contact, and hosting open houses with landlords to seek input on how to improve the process. In 2020, HUD issued guidance for PHAs to conduct inspections virtually through remote virtual inspections (RVIs), which have the potential to make the inspection process more efficient. HUD should continue to evaluate whether RVIs can sufficiently scan for health and safety issues.
Some cities have also implemented measures to incentivize acceptance of vouchers. For example, Marin County, CA has seen an increase in leases for voucher holders, attributing it to county programs that offer security deposits, damage protection, and vacancy loss coverage and a customer service hotline and workshops for landlords participating in the HCV program. Similarly, the PHA in Cambridge, MA offers damage and vacancy payments for landlords that lease to voucher holders. The Cambridge PHA also conducts landlord surveys to determine areas for improvement to improve landlord service satisfaction.
Though difficult to disentangle from prejudicial attitudes, many landlords cite “tenant quality” as a major deterrent to participating in the voucher program: 20% of landlords in Baltimore, 30% in Dallas, and 45% in Cleveland believed voucher tenants were worse tenants. Negative experiences include vandalized property and time-consuming evictions.
PHAs generally have limited screening for voucher holders (looking only for a criminal record or eviction while receiving vouchers) compared to experienced landlords, who often look at credit reports, make calls to previous landlords, and check employment records. As a result, some landlords may have a false sense that voucher tenants are rigorously pre-screened, leading them to neglect their own screening techniques and lease units to voucher renters who are relatively less vetted than their other tenants.
Relatedly, many housing advocates argue that discrimination prevents voucher holders from securing housing. Voucher holders are disproportionately women of colorbo: 48% are Black and 17% are Hispanic. While discrimination by landlords is difficult to prove, many voucher recipients report experiencing discrimination. In one Boston-area study, landlords in higher-income areas rejected 80% of black voucher holders, compared with 57% of voucher holders from other racial groups.
There is no federal law preventing landlords from rejecting voucher recipients as tenants as a matter of course. To combat discrimination against voucher recipients, more than a dozen states and many localities have enacted laws against discrimination in the housing market based on “source of income.” Protections for voucher recipients have proven to increase the program’s effectiveness, with increases in voucher utilization and lower denial rates. A bipartisan proposal introduced in the Senate in 2018 would have extended source of income protections nationally but has not gained traction.
However, source of income discrimination against voucher recipients still exists in areas with protections, as such laws are difficult to enforce. Tenant screening is often poorly documented, especially by small-scale landlords, making discriminatory intent difficult to prove. Laws prohibiting source of income discrimination are easier to enforce against larger apartment complexes with a greater set of data to aggregate. Research indicates such anti-discrimination laws are less effective in higher-income neighborhoods.
While addressing discrimination against voucher holders is critically important, efforts to improve the HCV process offer significant advantages for all involved. Advocates and policymakers should seek input from landlords and work together to advance reforms to the HCV program. Efforts such as HUD’s landlord listening forums and focus groups should continue. After all, landlords who serve low-income residents are highly familiar with how the program works and have a strong incentive to enhance access to predictable rental payments, backed by the federal government.
As Congress weighs ambitious investments in rental assistance, BPC urges policymakers to seek bipartisan solutions to increase landlord participation in the HCV program. Financial incentives for landlords, increased landlord engagement, and anti-discrimination laws would all enhance the HCV program’s impact, though none of these measures would lead to universal landlord participation on their own. As such, policymakers should evaluate these proposals as complementary policies, rather than competing or mutually exclusive solutions.
For more of our work on housing vouchers, see:
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