When Paul Woods got a housing voucher three years ago, he thought that he'd been given a fresh start after a series of setbacks. Woods, who served in the Marines and is now on disability, had been living with family and friends, bouncing from place to place. But his voucher came with an expiration date: 60 days to find an apartment.
Many landlords rejected Woods, 61, because of his voucher, he said. He found some who accepted vouchers but would show him only certain units — typically, less attractive ones. In Philadelphia, where rental rates are rising and affordable housing options are shrinking, his options were scarce.
Woods missed his deadline but got an extension. He now rents a home in Mount Airy, where he lives with his 5-year-old son. "I'm very happy with where I am now," he said. "There aren't many options out there."
A study released last week by the Urban Institute found that landlords often reject voucher holders, particularly in wealthier neighborhoods, even when the rents are within the range of what the voucher recipient can pay.
Researchers investigated discrimination against voucher holders in Los Angeles, Newark, Fort Worth, Washington, and Philadelphia. The cities were selected because all had large housing-choice voucher programs and a diverse housing stock and population.
In Philadelphia, the study involved calling 422 listings and asking whether the landlord accepted Housing Choice Vouchers, formerly known as Section 8 vouchers. Researchers selected apartments that matched what an average voucher holder pays. Two-thirds of the time, the landlord would not accept a voucher. In an effort to rule out racial discrimination, the calls were all made by a white woman.
"What we've really learned from this is just how hard it is to use a voucher," researcher Martha Galvez said. "And especially how hard it is to use a voucher in a neighborhood that is low-poverty, and might offer good schools and a high-quality environment."
Denial rates were even higher in Fort Worth (78 percent) and Los Angeles (76 percent). Rates were lower in Newark (31 percent) and Washington, D.C. (11 percent).
Philadelphia had the biggest difference — 26 percent — in denial rates between high-poverty and low-poverty neighborhoods, the study found.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority recently updated its rental rates to better align with average market rent in each neighborhood. It's allowing some tenants to move into neighborhoods they previously couldn't afford. Still, a look at the rental listings on PHA's website showed scant availability in Center City or its surrounding neighborhoods. (The 1,145 listings represent only a sample of those available.)
"The reality is, in very popular neighborhoods, property owners are able to rent their apartments on the open market, and in many cases these landlords don't want to deal with the regulations that govern our program," said Nichole Tillman, spokeswoman for PHA.
PHA requires regular inspections to ensure that the homes meet federal quality standards. Enrollment in the program can often take several months, which can mean delayed rental collection.
Walter Lapidus, who runs Anchor Realty, which manages 1,400 units citywide, said he constantly gets calls from tenants asking whether property is available for vouchers. "Unfortunately, to the extent our owners can avoid having to deal with the PHA bureaucracy, they do," Lapidus said. "Maybe when the market settles down, that will reverse."
In Philadelphia, it's illegal to discriminate against someone based on "source of income," but there's no law requiring a landlord to enroll in the Housing Choice Voucher Program.
When the Penn Wynne apartments in Wynnefield displaced tenants for renovations in June 2017, hundreds of people who receive housing assistance went looking for apartments in the area, said Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney for Community Legal Services. Phillips said many of the tenants with vouchers couldn't find landlords who would take them and wound up having to move out of the neighborhood.
"As we see mass evictions and displacement of buildings increase in Philly, this will increasingly become an issue for tenants looking to quickly lease up elsewhere to avoid homelessness, and facing rejections from landlords who 'don't take vouchers,'" Phillips said.