The stairs from the first floor to the second of Willie Taylor’s home are steep and narrow, a looming 12-step obstacle for the former chef.
At 58, Taylor has suffered a lot: three major heart attacks, battles with rheumatoid arthritis, and bulging discs in his back and neck. Most days, his pain confines him to the ground floor of the East Germantown home he rents, where he sleeps on a couch instead of his bed upstairs. Taylor knows he needs a more accessible apartment, but he also knows options are limited. He has no job, no family with whom he lives.
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The monthly Housing Choice Voucher he receives is one of the few safeguards he has.
Formerly known as Section 8, the voucher program was ushered in by the federal government in the 1970s to help low-income families secure good housing in the private market, apart from public housing projects. In theory, by giving tenants vouchers to pay part or all of their rent, landlords would benefit from steady rent checks from the government and therefore make their properties available. Voucher-holders, in turn, could live in neighborhoods they otherwise couldn’t afford.
In reality, however, the Section 8 program has been more complicated than originally envisioned, leaving tenants such as Taylor in a lurch. Experts who’ve studied Section 8 say that, for decades, it merely reconcentrated poverty — largely because the rental assistance was not sufficient to allow families to leave poor areas. Observers are hopeful that new voucher rules instituted by the federal government last year, which may increase voucher amounts in certain neighborhoods, will make it easier for tenants to find more and better options.
Yet, one key problem remains: In Philadelphia and across the country, many landlords don’t want to rent to Section 8 tenants.
Taylor began searching for an apartment last year, and after a lengthy search settled on the East Germantown rowhouse, simply because the landlord accepted his rental assistance. Taylor — a voucher-holder for nearly two decades — had lived for more than 10 years in West Oak Lane, on a grassy street where he was block captain, he said, and in an apartment that felt like home. On the day he moved to East Germantown, however, Taylor suffered a third heart attack, he said. Climbing stairs became too hard. And so, at the end of 2018, he was looking for housing again.
According to a complaint filed with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, the city’s civil rights agency, Taylor’s search was unsuccessful; he was turned away by a landlord because of his Section 8 status. The complaint, announced this week, alleges that Taylor called Liberty Crossing, a North Philadelphia apartment complex managed by Chelsea Management, and asked whether Housing Choice Vouchers were accepted.
An employee who answered his call said that although vouchers were previously accepted at Liberty Crossing, “they no longer consider applicants with vouchers,” according to the complaint. A social worker who later called on Taylor’s behalf was told the same thing.
Taylor’s complaint was filed by the Public Interest Law Center, a Philadelphia firm with a history of big legal victories (including most recently a gerrymandering decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which ruled that the state’s congressional map was unconstitutional after the law firm sued). Taylor’s complaint was one of two filed this month on behalf of voucher recipients; the firm is also representing a Philadelphia woman, Tomika Anglin, 51, who, her lawyers allege, was turned away when she asked two real estate companies whether they rented to Section 8 tenants.
The companies that rejected Taylor and Anglin’s rental inquiries, according to the filings, were discriminating against them because they would be paying with Housing Choice Vouchers — an action prohibited in Philadelphia. The city’s Fair Practice Ordinance stipulates that it is illegal to deny a person housing based on “source of income," defined as “all forms of public assistance,” including “housing assistance programs.”
If successful, the complaints could send ripples across Philadelphia’s housing market — where it has become increasingly routine for landlords to reject some of the 15,200 residents who receive monthly vouchers from the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which administers the federally funded program.
A study released last year by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, found that landlords in many cities “routinely reject voucher holders before meeting them, despite the fact that the assistance voucher holders receive guarantees that a share of the rent will be paid.”
In Philadelphia, 67% of landlords polled would not accept vouchers. The study was conducted by calling 422 local listings that met voucher requirements, meaning apartments similar to what an average voucher-holder would rent. Denials in Philadelphia were more frequent in higher-income neighborhoods. Nearly 7% of landlords were unsure of their voucher policy.
The Public Interest Law Center complaints were filed against five landlords and property management companies that operate in Philadelphia. Representatives from Liberty Crossings 2012 LP and Chelsea Management, both named in Taylor’s complaint, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Anglin’s complaint, meanwhile, alleges that she was denied by two real estate companies this year when she asked whether they rented to voucher recipients. In one instance, Anglin — who receives a $1,100 monthly voucher for herself and her 17-year-old son — emailed Allegiance Real Estate LLC, a Philadelphia property manager, asking whether it was willing to rent a Point Breeze home listed for $1,050 a month “under Section 8.”
Six minutes later, according to the filing, an Allegiance representative responded: “Unfortunately not.”
In emails to The Inquirer this week, Bryan Reese, Allegiance’s broker-owner, said his company “does not discriminate” and that “we simply cannot accept a Housing Choice Voucher ... for any property that is not Section 8 approved.” The property owners, Anthony and Lori Gotzis, who were named in the complaint, did not return a call for comment.
The Public Interest Law Center also filed a second complaint on behalf of Anglin, alleging that Ginark Investments & Management LP, a Philadelphia landlord and property manager, also denied her the chance to view an apartment after a representative learned she had a voucher. Reached this week, Gina Battaglini, the general partner of Ginark, denied discriminating against tenants, but said she is in “business to make money” and is “not going to take low-ball rents.” She pointed the finger at the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which she said provides lower rents than she could get in the private market.
PHA, in response, said that the maximum rents it can pay are based on the new guidelines from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which determines PHA voucher payments based on the zip code in which a voucher-holder is trying to rent. In most cases, tenants’ rent payments are capped at 30% of their income, with the voucher covering the rest.
Rent prices for units occupied by voucher-holders are negotiated between PHA and the landlord. In order to rent a property to a recipient, landlords must complete a training class and have the property annually inspected.
Some experts said in interviews that some of the alleged discrimination in the market may simply reflect a lack of knowledge that rejecting voucher-holders is illegal. Although no federal or state law requires landlords to rent to voucher recipients, Philadelphia is one of several dozen cities that prohibits housing discrimination based on “source of income.”
Still, others said, it is hard to ignore how closely voucher rejection intersects with race. Nearly 80% of voucher recipients in Philadelphia are black, HUD data show. Taylor and Anglin are African American.
“By discriminating against Housing Choice Vouchers, you are affecting black families in Philadelphia,” said George Donnelly, one of the lawyers who filed the complaints.
The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations has 100 days to investigate. If probable cause is found — meaning it’s more likely than not that discrimination occurred — the case could go before the agency’s commissioners for a hearing.
Meanwhile, Taylor’s housing search continues. This week, he learned he was turned away from yet another property.
At his East Germantown home, Taylor stood among dozens of boxes that hadn’t been unpacked. His refrigerator is sparse. On days when he feels most dejected, he said, he thinks about packing up and moving to a shelter.
“I’m more scared than anything,” Taylor said, and began to cry.