Champaign Landlords Now Permitted To Discriminate Against Section 8 Voucher Holders

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ON OCTOBER 9, 2007, Champaign officials
turned back the clock on efforts to
protect the city’s most vulnerable citizens
from discrimination in housing. By
a 6-3 vote, the City Council amended
Champaign’s Human Rights Ordinance,
thereby allowing landlords to refuse to
rent to people who would pay part of their rent with a federal
Section 8 housing assistance voucher (Bruno, Feinen,
Foster, McIntosh, Pirok, and Sweighart in favor; Dodds,
Jackson, and LaDue opposed). The decision promotes
landlords’ interests at the expense of Section 8 voucher
holders’ rights to be protected from discrimination.
The Section 8 program provides low income persons
with a voucher that can be used to pay for rent in the private
market. The program pays the difference between
30% of the qualified applicant’s income and the fair market
rental of the unit. Currently, the need for vouchers is much
greater than the supply. Only about 1300 of the estimated
2500-3000 eligible families in the county are voucher
holders. The waiting list of qualified applicants has grown
so long that it is no longer possible to even get on it.
During the past 30 years, Champaign’s policy on
whether to prohibit discrimination against Section 8 voucher
holders has shifted back and forth. For over 25 of those
years, Section 8 renters enjoyed the same legal protections
from discrimination as renters using any other form of payment.
These protections were initially implemented in
1977, the first year that the Champaign County Housing
Authority applied to the Department of Housing and Urban
Development for Section 8 funds. In fact, Champaign was
the first city in Illinois to prohibit housing discrimination
on the basis of source of income. From 1977 through 2001,
refusal to rent to someone solely on the basis that they
would use a Section 8 voucher to pay part of their rent was
enforced as a violation of the city ordinance.
That practice changed in 2001 when a complaint was
filed by a prospective tenant against a large local apartment
owner, Royce & Brinkmeyer Apartments, alleging discrimination
on the basis of Section 8. In a hearing before the
Human Relations Commission (HRC), Royce & Brinkmeyer
argued that federal law established Section 8 as a voluntary
program and that the federal law should pre-empt the
city’s ordinance. To the surprise of many, the hearing officer
ruled in favor of the apartment owner, finding the “source of
income” clause in the city ordinance did not cover Section
8. The HRC accepted the hearing officer’s ruling. The complainant
appealed the decision to the Circuit Court, which
ruled that the HRC had acted within its authority by interpreting
the “source of income” as not including Section 8.
In 2006, Esther Patt, Director of the Champaign-
Urbana Tenant Union, brought the issue back before the
HRC, encouraged by a 2004 ruling by the Illinois Appellate
Court (1st District, Godinez v. Sullivan Lackey) which
upheld the City of Chicago’s practice of interpreting the
“source of income” clause in their human rights ordinance
to include Section 8. Following public hearings by the
Champaign HRC and a study session by the City Council,
in March 2006 the council followed the recommendation
of the HRC and specifically prohibited discrimination
against Section 8 voucher holders. Following the spring
2007 municipal elections, however, two council members
who supported Section 8 protections were replaced by
two who opposed them, leading the council in October
2007 to reverse the 2006 decision. Once again landlords
are free to turn away prospective Section 8 tenants.
Much of the debate leading up to and surrounding this
most recent decision focused not on the costs of discrimination
to Section 8 voucher holders and the community but on
burdens to landlords. One potential burden that the HRC
investigated turns out, on closer inspection, to be more of a
burden in theory than in reality. It happens that HUD can
prematurely terminate a contract with a landlord when certain
special circumstances arise for Section 8 tenants (e.g., if
the tenant has a child and needs an extra bedroom, if the tenant
marries) and landlords do not have the capacity to sue to
recover lost rental income as they would with other lessees.
While it is very difficult to obtain precise data on how often
these circumstances arise, they are certainly rare. The rate of
premature terminations for any reason is less than 5%, so the
rate for these special circumstances is certainly less. Indeed,
Section 8 vouchers are so valuable that those lucky enough to
have them will do nothing to risk losing them. Most participating
landlords find that Section 8 voucher holders are
among the most reliable tenants.
Landlords are also protected from financial burden by the
human rights ordinance, which since 1977, has allowed discrimination
if it can be demonstrated to be based on a business
necessity. Landlords who demonstrate that participation
in the program causes a financial burden are exempted from
complying. Moreover, the HRC discovered that there were
many misconceptions in the community about what burdens
the program actually posed and what anti-discrimination
protections would demand of them. In response, the
HRC recommended that the City Council clear up these
misconceptions by codifying how the city staff historically
has interpreted Section 8 protections—specifically indicating
that a property owner was not required to do any of the
following: “(1) keep a rental unit vacant, or refrain from renting
an available unit to a qualified applicant, while waiting
for a Section 8 inspection; (2) perform repairs; (3) change
the amount of rent or damage deposit; or (4) change standards
for application approval for a Section 8 voucher holder
so long as the same standards apply to all tenants.” But
those landlords who were vocal about the issue opposed
adoption of this clarifying language and instead urged the
Council to drop Section 8 protections altogether.
The goal of Champaign’s Human Rights Ordinance, like
other anti-discrimination law, is to prevent individuals
from being denied “equal opportunity in housing, employment,
education, public accommodations, health care and
delivery of social services” … “based upon categorizing or
classifying a person which is not based on factual data
about the person or group and is not related to the purpose
for which it is used.” Several council members suggested
that there is no need to protect Section 8 renters from discrimination
because there are more rental units on the market
that accept Section 8 than there are voucher holders to
fill them. Such arguments simply miss the point of anti-discrimination
law. From the point of view of the law, the fact
that a community might have an adequate number of
employers who are willing to hire women does not make it
alright for a given employer or group of employers to
refuse to hire women simply because they are women.
The recent city council decision has the impact of
denying equal opportunity in housing for Section 8
voucher holders.
According to the 2006 Census, 26.1% of Champaign City
residents, and 13.5% of the families with children in the city
live below the federal poverty level. The decision to allow
Section 8 discrimination will hurt many of these already
highly stressed families by making it more difficult for them
to live close to work, school, services, or to other family
members. Given the demographics of Section 8 voucher
holders, such discrimination will have a disparate negative
impact on the disabled, families with children and people of
color. While many property owners are willing to accept Section
8 tenants, they are not evenly distributed across the community.
Thus, the decision to allow Section 8 discrimination
will reinforce residential segregation by race and income. The
decision to protect landlords’ interests over the rights of poor
citizens to be free from discrimination will reverberate in our
neighborhoods and schools, notwithstanding efforts to distinguish
and rationalize discrimination against the Section 8
program from discrimination against poor people.

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