Ending Housing Voucher Discrimination in Cook County

Ending Housing Voucher Discrimination in Cook County

LCBH, working with a host of other housing advocates throughout Cook County, is supporting an amendment to the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance (CCHRO) making it illegal to discriminate against Housing Choice Voucher holders.

CCHRO currently protects people from discrimination based on their source of income but exempts those with Housing Choice Vouchers from protection. This allows landlords and other housing providers to refuse renting to otherwise qualified individuals and families solely because their rent would be subsidized. Source of Income protection in the CCHRO explicitly excludes voucher holders, thus the proposed amendment is to eliminate that exclusion.

The Housing Choice Voucher program within the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assists very low- income families, the elderly, and the disabled with affording decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market. Housing assistance is provided on behalf of individuals or families (defined as having children present in the home) and participants are able to find their own housing in the private market, including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments. In Cook County, the program is administered by the Housing Authority of Cook County and serves over 13,000 families.

An expressed purpose of the voucher program is to expand housing options for chronically segregated individuals and families, which in Cook County are African-Americans, and to a lesser extent, Latinos. Studies, including those by LCBH, have shown that housing providers in suburban Cook County often refuse to rent to voucher holders as a legal way to discriminate and exclude people based on race, familial status, or disability. This keeps African-Americans, Latinos, people with children, and people with disabilities in poor, segregated, and low-opportunity towns and neighborhoods.

Tenants with disabilities have an especially hard time finding housing, as accessible units are severely limited. Protection for Voucher holders should allow people with disabilities access to many more housing opportunities. The same is true of families seeking good schools or who have many children and are searching for larger apartments. Landlords can benefit from renting to tenants with vouchers, as the HUD portion of rent is guaranteed, and tenants have been through an extensive screening process in order to receive the voucher. In fact, voucher holders are some of the most scrutinized of tenants and must meet rigorous admission criteria. Approximately 40% of voucher recipients are employed and more than 30% are seniors or persons with disabilities. The amendment would not force property owners to rent any or all of their units to households using Housing Choice Vouchers, just to allow them to apply. Property owners then have the right to screen voucher holders with the same criteria utilized for all other applicants.

The 2012 Cook County Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice, required by HUD, specifically cites the county’s exclusion of Housing Choice Voucher protection as an impediment to fair housing and recommends that the county board amend the Human Rights Ordinance to include this protection. In 2012 Cook County received $8.7 million in Community Development Block Grant funds in addition to other federal grants. The Federal Fair Housing Act requires Cook County to affirmatively further fair housing in order to continue receiving such funds. HUD is moving to sanction funded jurisdictions that neglect this responsibility, thus it is imperative that county and municipal leaders tackle segregation directly and act deliberately to promote integration. Expanding voucher protections can ease race and poverty concentrations throughout Cook County and promote equitable and inclusive housing patterns.

Approval of this amendment would also make Cook County fair housing laws consistent with the City of Chicago. Source of income coverage in the Chicago Fair Housing Ordinance has included Housing Choice Vouchers since 1999.

In support of the amendment, Rich Monocchio, the Executive Director of the Housing Authority of Cook County, acknowledges that there are misconceptions about the voucher program. He has testified that recent restructuring and streamlining of the program through the use of technology has made it more efficient and effective. According to Monocchio, passage of the amendment will “enable families to help break the cycle of poverty and become self-sufficient.” He has offered to speak to any owners or landlords who want information on the program.

The amendment is scheduled to come before the Cook County Board in the spring session. Individuals and organizations that support equal treatment for families with vouchers are encouraged to contact their Cook County Commissioner. Passage of this amendment to the CCHRO would eliminate the last remaining source of income discrimination in Cook County and landlords could no longer turn families away by saying, “Sorry, I don’t take Housing Choice Vouchers.”