Amid severe shortages in affordable housing, receiving a voucher after years of waiting can feel like literally winning the lottery for a low-income family. But that’s just the first step in a long and arduous process for families in search of a decent place to live.

Families who receive a voucher then have to find an apartment that meets the program’s requirements and a landlord willing to rent to them. That means sifting through countless apartment advertisements, making numerous calls, and dealing with a chorus of “Nos” when they ask if landlords accept housing vouchers.

In a new Urban Institute report, funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, we found that many landlords 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.

We examined landlord acceptance of housing vouchers in five locations—Los Angeles, California; Fort Worth, Texas; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Washington, DC; and Newark, New Jersey—and found consistent rejection from landlords when they were asked if they accepted vouchers.

Our findings released recently shine new light on the powerful role landlords play in the success of the Housing Choice Voucher program, the federal government’s largest rental housing assistance program.

Landlords hold the key to a voucher-holder’s opportunity to live in decent housing in a good neighborhood. To improve the program, we should encourage landlords to participate and make it easier for them to do so.

What obstacles do voucher holders face when trying to rent a unit?

Our testers’ experiences searching for affordable housing suggest that finding apartments that meet the rent cap can be difficult and frustrating. On average, across the five sites, we screened 39 apartment ads to identify one potentially eligible unit.

Next came the Nos, and lots of them.

Landlord denial rates were highest in Fort Worth (78 percent) and Los Angeles (76 percent), followed closely by Philadelphia (67 percent). Rates were substantially lower in Newark (31 percent) and Washington, DC (15 percent), where explicit rejection of voucher holders is prohibited by state or local antidiscrimination laws.

Our data suggests that voucher holders who want to find housing in “opportunity” areas—places with high-quality schools, lower crime, and more jobs—will face even more rejection. Living in these neighborhoods has a significant impact on kid’s outcomes later in life.

If they can’t find a landlord that will accept vouchers, they can’t use their voucher. These obstacles can also result in more costs for the public housing authorities that administer the program.

What is driving discrimination against voucher holders, and what can be done to change it?

Despite the importance of landlords for program outcomes, we don’t know enough about why they reject voucher holders or about successful ways to engage them in the program. Some landlords complain of poor PHA management and onerous program requirements, such as unit inspections. Other landlords may have negative views of the families who participate in the voucher program.

Our finding that rejection was less frequent in cities with state or local antidiscrimination laws protecting voucher holders suggests that these laws should be expanded and enforced. Many jurisdictions across the country are considering such laws. Denver’s city council just approved a measure that will protect voucher holders by making it illegal for landlords to discriminate against them.

In addition to protecting voucher holders against discrimination, policymakers should test ways to boost participation by making the program more attractive and more efficient for landlords. Strategies could include

  • providing cash incentives or bonuses for landlords to accept vouchers;
  • improving customer service, such as ensuring the public housing agency pays the rents on time and conducts efficient and timely inspection of the unit
  • setting rents at competitive levels, including higher rent payments in attractive “opportunity” areas.

HUD has recognized the importance of landlords by launching a new landlord task force and “listening sessions” in cities nationwide to hear directly from landlords about ways to increase their participation in the program.

Gaining a better understanding of the reasons behind landlords’ negative views of the voucher program or reluctance to participate is the first step. Taking bold action to develop targeted solutions to ensure all families have access to decent housing in neighborhoods that will help them improve their lives should come next.

Mary K. Cunningham, Martha M. Galvez, and Emily Peiffer

Lee Matz

Originally published on Urban Institute as Urban Wire Housing and Housing Finance