Pathways Into Homelessness: Source-of-Income Discrimination

source of income discrimination leads to homelessness

Source of income discrimination, or the practice of rejecting potential renters because they are receiving some level of government assistance, is yet another underreported pathway into homelessness.

As we shine a spotlight on this issue, it’s important to point out that government assistance is meant to prevent homelessness for people living in poverty, or at least that’s how it works in theory. When put into practice, however, we find that the opposite is true. Receiving government assistance can put vulnerable individuals and families at an elevated risk for homelessness due to landlords refusing to rent to them.

Here’s a glimpse at what source of income discrimination looks like in real-life scenarios.

Section 8 Voucher Holders Cite Source-of-Income Discrimination as the ‘Most Common Form of Housing Discrimination’ in the United States

A destitute scene unfolds in Atlanta, Georgia, where several homeless residents sit quietly in an Athens city-sanctioned encampment on a cloud-covered afternoon. Sparse patches of grass sprout up around the cluster of several dozen tents. Cardboard boxes sport bare essentials like toothpaste, soap, and sanitizer, but little more.

Encampment residents Yvonne Simms and Vincent Dillard sit with a reporter for the 11 Alive broadcast to discuss their position. Neither of these individuals should be homeless, according to the paperwork.

Both Yvonne and Vincent are Housing Choice Voucher recipients. These vouchers represent a state program known as HCV or sometimes Section 8.

This program is government-substantiated housing assistance. It should be a bridge for those living in poverty to keep their heads above water or, at the very least, to keep roofs over their heads during the storm. Sadly, however, many people become homeless because they can’t find a landlord willing to accept their vouchers in time for them to use them. 

Eventually, the vouchers will expire, leaving the person or family who fought so hard to get into the program out on the streets.

“What’s the use of a voucher if I can’t do anything with it?” said Yvonne.

The problem is more prevalent in some places than it is in others. But nationwide, many voucher recipients acknowledge that source-of-income discrimination, while technically illegal, is a struggle.

A Double-Edged Sword: Low-Income Earners Fail Tenant Screenings with and Without Government Assistance

“Here in Milwaukee, I’m not aware of anybody screening for SNAP eligibility,” Sherrie Tussler, the Chief Executive Officer of Hunger Task Force, told Invisible People.

Sherrie would know. Her organization operates a food bank that supplies 20 soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and she has been avidly serving the community for 27 years. Her keen take on hunger, housing, and discrimination reveals the deep complexities of the issue.

Sure, there are anti-discrimination laws, but they seem to only work theoretically, like the assistance programs on hand.

“There wouldn’t be a way for folks to dive into the state’s website on that topic. But, what I do see is if people are contributing more than 30% of their income towards rent, then a landlord is going to be less likely to rent to them,” Sherrie said. “And if they list that SNAP eligibility as a form of income, it could probably put them at risk of not being chosen as the most ideal tenant.”

SNAP stands for the government-subsidized Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, which helps hungry families make ends meet. Food assistance and housing assistance are separate types of aid, but both can get a potential renter disqualified if listed as a source of income.

Fair Housing Laws Are All Too Often Broken

Critics claim that the source of income discrimination couldn’t possibly be driving people into homelessness. After all, there are laws against such antics. Aren’t there?

The answer is yes. Housing bias is technically illegal. But that doesn’t seem to stop it from happening at some pretty unfathomable rates.

For example, in New York City, an investigation led by the Manhattan-based group Housing Rights Initiative named a jaw-dropping 88 landlords and brokerage firms in a source-of-income discrimination lawsuit. That lawsuit reveals several unsettling trends, as does the investigation that preceded it.

Herein, we learn that when neighborhood watchdogs posed as voucher recipients, they were denied rental rights by various landlords, from the tiny mom-and-pop operations to the large-scale corporate entities like Compass and Century 21.

This is yet another example of landlords breaching renters’ rights, a crime with practically zero repercussions that is treated, at best, as a minor slight.

Think about it this way. In 2020, there was a nationwide ban on all evictions that should have been ironclad. However, during that period, according to “U.S. Eviction Filing Patterns in 2020“, a paper produced by some of the most renowned housing researchers in the country, there were approximately 927,000 eviction filings that still took place.

That’s close to a million evictions filed by landlords at a time when eviction filing was deemed illegal. If anyone other than landlords broke the law in a million different places, it would be all over the news.

Imagine how colossal this story might have been if 927,000 bank robberies occurred. Today, just four short years later, stories of these broken eviction moratoriums have already been buried under a million gigabytes of cyberdust.

Is it any wonder that landlords consistently break laws that are brimming with loopholes and almost never enforced?

Talk to Your Representatives About Holding Landlords Financially Accountable and Upholding Renter Rights

Homelessness shaves decades off of people’s lives. To that end, driving people into homelessness by participating in acts of discrimination should be treated as a violent crime, complete with prison time or, at the very least, exorbitant fines that discourage this behavior.

Talk to your representatives about drafting laws that hold landlords accountable and uphold renter rights today.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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