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Proposed federal housing law could reinforce protections for veterans, voucher holders

Wyatt Gordon/Virginia Mercury

The Fair Housing Improvement Act of 2023 — a bill introduced in April by Sen. Kaine and California Reps. Scott Peters and Adam Schiff — could help hinder housing discrimination by enshrining protections for veterans and voucher holders at the federal level.

A sign advertising an apartment for rent in Richmond’s Fan neighborhood. (Wyatt Gordon/The Virginia Mercury)

In 2018 when Sen. Tim Kaine first advanced a bill to expand the federal Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of veteran status and tenants’ source of income, state law in the commonwealth afforded Virginians no such protections. During Democrats’ brief blue trifecta, however, a flurry of bills in 2020 established housing protections for LGBTQ+ individuals, victims of domestic abuse, veterans and voucher holders.

But with enforcement spotty and education lacking, the realities of the housing market haven’t kept up with the letter of the law. The Fair Housing Improvement Act of 2023 — a bill introduced in April by Sen. Kaine and California Reps. Scott Peters and Adam Schiff — could help hinder ongoing discrimination by enshrining protections for veterans and voucher holders at the federal level.

Data on discrimination

Just 20 states in America currently prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of one’s source of income. Data surrounding protections for people serving in the military or with veteran status is not as robust; however, at a minimum Virginia and eight other states have banned prejudicial treatment of servicemembers and their dependents.

Despite such anti-discrimination laws, the national total of fair housing complaints still increased to over 31,000 in 2021, the latest year for which data is available. Furthermore, complaints based on source of income discrimination also rose over 2020 figures.

In advance of a coming report on the matter, Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia has been conducting testing across Eastern, Central and Southwest Virginia. Staffers called and pretended to want to rent housing using vouchers from 13 providers across Hampton Roads,19 providers around Greater Richmond, and seven providers in the Roanoke region. 

Although source of funds protections are actually quite broad, this first round of testing focused exclusively on vouchers. The goal of HOME of Virginia’s efforts was to determine if landlords are calculating potential tenants’ income accurately and treating voucher holders the same as other applicants. The results were both disheartening and promising.

“There was a good deal of confusion over how to calculate income and a lot of mistakes and people needing to talk to their manager to get it right,” said Brenda Castaneda, HOME of Virginia’s legal director. “There were some landlords still saying they don’t take vouchers, but the more common trend was landlords not knowing what they needed to do to take vouchers.”

The region with the fewest cases of illegal denials of applicants was Southwest Virginia, where the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority conducted an intensive training program in 2021 with local landlords to inform them of their responsibilities. Such progress indicates one potential solution to ending discrimination against veterans and voucher holders, according to Castaneda.

“Ignorance still results in a lot of discrimination against voucher holders, so there needs to be more education and guidance for housing providers as to how to apply the law,” she said.

The power of protections

As a former fair housing lawyer, Kaine understands the importance of education in reducing discrimination in the rental market. Although the protections contained in his Fair Housing Improvement Act of 2023 would be groundbreaking in dozens of states across America, adding a federal layer of protection could also help underscore the policy changes made here in the commonwealth over the last few years.

“The attention that we could get on this by making this national law would be part of educating prospective tenants as well as landlords,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s not like every landlord follows in intricate detail the actions of the General Assembly.”

Overlapping layers of protections can be especially impactful for people of color, who represent a disproportionate share of voucher holders. Although decades of education and enforcement have made it clear to most landlords that explicit racial discrimination is illegal, denying applicants based on their source of income can sometimes serve as a proxy method to deny Black and Latino people seeking housing.

“Reinforcing these anti-discrimination policies at the federal level is fantastic because it adds an additional layer of gravitas,” said Tram Nguyen, a co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, a statewide group that lobbies on behalf of marginalized peoples. “Every tool in our toolbox is important to make sure families can stay in their homes, and this bill would mean that no matter what zip code you live in here in Virginia or across the country, you enjoy those same protections.”

Because housing discrimination law relies upon tenants filing complaints, if an applicant isn’t aware of her rights after being denied housing on a wrongful basis, no enforcement can take place. Since the pandemic struck shortly after the General Assembly enacted protections for veterans and voucher holders, policy analysts have had a hard time gauging the impact of the new anti-discrimination laws in such an unusual housing market.

“Each transaction is an opportunity to educate people and build a case record, but for so long we didn’t have as many new transactions when we had everyone in lockdown,” said Melissa Bondi, the state and local policy director for Enterprise Community Partners. “There is a decrease in rejections when landlords know that these protections are in place and that is even better than enforcement because then things are going smoothly without the system having to do anything to correct it.”

A federal fix?

Currently, Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown — the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs — is working to assemble a bipartisan housing reform bill to present sometime later this summer. Although this iteration of Kaine’s bill doesn’t have a Republican co-sponsor yet, he is still searching for a GOP lawmaker from a state with protections for veterans and voucher holders to join him as a patron.

Even without a conservative co-sponsor, Kaine is hopeful he can get the The Fair Housing Improvement Act of 2023 included as one of the provisions of Brown’s larger housing reform bill. Constituents across the commonwealth who have shared their struggles in accessing safe and affordable shelter have made this bill one of Kaine’s top priorities, according to the senator.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“For years, housing was a top ten issue, not a top five issue, but now housing is a top three issue wherever I go in Virginia,” he said.

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