Hawaii Needs To End Housing Voucher Discrimination Now - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Abbey Seitz

Abbey Seitz is a professional community planner and freelance writer with a master’s in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Hawaii Manoa. She founded Planning for Community LLC, a housing and transportation consultancy firm.

The conversation around solving the housing crisis is sometimes solely focused on building more housing. While this is an obvious part of the equation, it does not acknowledge the fact that many of our low-income residents are shut out of housing units that already exist.

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If you pay rent with a housing voucher or another form of government assistance, your landlord can turn you away. This form of discrimination, rampant in Hawaii and across the United States, turns voucher holders into second-class citizens when it comes to finding rentals. They can be denied rental housing simply for having a voucher, regardless of other qualifications.

Housing Choice Vouchers (previously referred to as Section 8) allow very low-income tenants and their families to pay for rent based on their income, with the voucher paying for the difference between what their income can cover and the cost of the private market rent.

For example, fair market rent for a 1-bedroom unit in downtown Honolulu is about $1,900 a month, which is clearly too expensive for someone earning $2,000 a month total income. The voucher program enables someone to afford this rent by requiring that they contribute 30% of their income (in this example $600) towards rent and then the remaining rent is covered by the voucher. It is designed to be a win-win situation. Tenants have 70% of their income to spend on food, health care and other living expenses, and landlords have guaranteed rental income.

Housing vouchers are one of the most powerful anti-poverty initiatives in America. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, vouchers sharply reduce homelessness, housing instability, and overcrowding. Moreover, vouchers lift an estimated 3 million people out of poverty each year — more than any other federal program except social security.

Unfortunately, in addition to the myriad of government-erected barriers people face in accessing housing vouchers, many landlords and property management companies refuse to rent to voucher holders. Anyone who has searched for housing in Hawaii can attest to this. Apartment advertisements are rife with “No Section 8” and “No vouchers” language. Even in cases where such discrimination is not explicitly stated, studies have documented that the majority of landlords will deny rental applications from voucher holders.

For example, one study in Los Angeles found that 76% of landlords refused to accept housing vouchers, with landlords in higher-income neighborhoods proving especially discriminatory.

‘Unstable Living Situations’

Exclusionary practices based on a household’s source of funds keep people houseless or trapped in unstable living situations. Even worse, since voucher holders only have a limited time to use their vouchers, if a landlord turns them away, households can lose vouchers they may have been waiting years to receive.

These practices also have major equity implications. As of January 2022, there were over 11,000 voucher holders in Hawaii. Over 70% of these households identify as people of color and nearly 41% had a member with a disability. Single mothers are also disproportionately impacted. Nationally, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, a staggering 83% of voucher households were headed by women.

View of Kakaako from Manoa showing the Honolulu skyline with the same height limit.
Voucher discrimination makes it difficult for many in Honolulu to hold on to their rental units. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Despite this, voucher discrimination is not currently illegal in Hawaii. While the Federal Fair Housing Act bars landlords from explicitly discriminating against tenants’ race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin (known as “protected classes”), a tenant’s source of income or voucher status is not protected.

However, 16 states and 100 local municipalities in the U.S. have recently adopted laws and ordinances that prohibit voucher and/or source of income discrimination. Numerous studies have demonstrated that these measures lead to voucher holders having greater access to housing. For HUD housing choice vouchers in particular, jurisdictions that have implemented such protections have seen increased voucher utilization rates, ranging up to 12 percentage points or higher in these jurisdictions than in those without the same legal protection.

Hawaii should take similar steps this upcoming legislative session to prohibit source of funds discrimination. For years, state housing and homeless agencies along with social service providers and community organizations have been advocating for this legislation.

There are multiple proposals addressing voucher discrimination currently moving through the Legislature. Most promising, Senate Bill 206, a bill which was carried over from the 2021 session, has already passed in the Senate and has passed its first reading in the House. If passed as currently written, landlords could be fined up to $5,000 if they are found to be discriminating against tenants receiving housing assistance.

In comparison, House Bill 1752 would establish incentives for landlords who participate in housing choice voucher programs (“landlord incentive program”). The bill originally included language which would have prohibited the inclusion of discriminatory language (i.e., “No Section 8”) in housing advertisements but would have not prohibited the act of discrimination itself.

Nationally, prior to the pandemic, 83% of voucher households were headed by women.

Luckily, this provision was removed after housing advocates testified that only making discriminatory advertisements illegal would do more harm than good by giving tenants false hope.

Enacting these legal protections and incentive programs would not require that landlords accept housing choice vouchers. Ultimately, landlords still get to make the final decision on who to accept as tenants. However, under SB 206, a tenant’s voucher status could not be the only reason to disqualify someone.

Due to Hawaii’s housing supply crisis, voucher holders will still find it difficult to compete with other tenants who do not require a government housing inspection (as is the case with voucher holders) or who can offer cash deposits. Even with the best anti-discrimination laws in place, Hawaii will still need more publicly supported housing that welcomes voucher holders and values the predictable and steady rent payments that housing vouchers provide.

No one should be denied housing simply because they receive assistance in paying their rent. Enacting legal protections for voucher holders is a vital step to help our community members access housing. This legislative session is a time when we can come together and collectively create a more fair and just housing system that provides equal opportunity for all tenants.

Ending voucher discrimination is a policy priority of the Hawaii Housing Affordability Coalition. If you’re interested in supporting their work, please email hihousing.advocacy@gmail.com.

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About the Author

Abbey Seitz

Abbey Seitz is a professional community planner and freelance writer with a master’s in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Hawaii Manoa. She founded Planning for Community LLC, a housing and transportation consultancy firm.

Latest Comments (0)

Until the program itself gets fixed to better support landlords, section 8 applicants will struggle to find housing.Anti-discrimination laws regarding section 8 will never work. Credit scores and previous landlord references/rental history would be viable means of declining an applicant. Credit score too low, debt to income to high, poor or insufficient rental history... all viable reasons.I've said this before and I'll say it again. If vetted well, the people are rarely the problem. It's the system itself that needs to be fixed.

basic_citizen123 · 1 year ago

Does consultant-author have rental properties that she rents to Section 8/Housing Voucher tenants? If yes, please write an article on what condition the property was in when it was vacated by the tenants. If not, she needs to interview landlords who had experience with Section 8 tenants.

kbaybaby · 1 year ago

"It is designed to be a win-win situation. Tenants have 70% of their income to spend on food, health care and other living expenses, and landlords have guaranteed rental income" Win win? Stats show that when people do not have real skin in the game, they do not care for what is not theirs. In other words. Sec. 8 renters do not care for the property, thus leaving the investor holding the bag on many renters that leaves the property damaged, removed appliances and the like. Who pays for all of that? The property owner. Not the government. Its a win lose situation. I would guarantee that if the author had rental properties that was damaged and items stolen as others have in the past from Sec. 8, she would not be an advocate for this. Its all good until in effects you.

Stopthemadness · 1 year ago

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