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Apartment for rent sign

The Section 8 housing voucher program is designed to avoid the challenges of concentrated poverty typically associated with traditional public housing. Tenants receive rent subsidy vouchers from a local housing authority and can redeem them anywhere landlords accept them, so long as properties meet certain standards.

In the end, though, most voucher recipients in St. Louis still end up clustered in lower-income communities.

In an attempt to alleviate that concentration, St. Louis passed two measures last week aimed at making it easier for landlords to participate in the program while also banning the practice of rejecting tenants because they have vouchers.

The bill was sponsored by Alderman Christine Ingrassia and signed by Mayor Francis Slay. It will take effect in March.

One of the measures removes a requirement that landlords who receive voucher payments obtain special Section 8 occupancy permits from the city, which required additional inspections other landlords weren’t subject to. Many other cities don’t have that requirement.

Ingrassia called the inspections redundant and unnecessary, and hopes that removing that hurdle will entice more landlords to participate in the program.

The other bill added language to a current ordinance outlining protections against housing discrimination. Now, the ordinance spells out that it’s illegal to refuse to rent to someone because they have a voucher.

Ingrassia acknowledged that the measure could be challenging to enforce because it can be difficult to prove that a landlord rejected a tenant specifically because of a voucher.

“It’s not a perfect law,” she said, “but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Tenants can file complaints to the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council and the city’s Civil Rights Enforcement Agency.

The two bills were recommended by Molly Metzger, a Washington University social work professor who has studied Section 8 use in the region.

“If the intended purpose compared to public housing is to let the renter be in charge of where they live,” she said, “it looks like all these restrictions we place on landlords and renters ... narrow these options even further.”

The factors driving the clustering of voucher use in certain neighborhoods are myriad: Vouchers can’t be used on properties where the rent is above what the federal government considers a fair market rent, which limits use in higher-income areas. Many landlords don’t want Section 8 tenants and don’t want to deal with additional inspections and paperwork if they can easily find tenants without vouchers. Those who advertise accepting vouchers online are often offering properties in poorer neighborhoods. Additionally, people tend to move into areas that they’re already familiar with.

Another reason, Metzger said, simply has to do with where housing is already situated. In much of St. Louis County, she pointed out, zoning laws have limited development of rental housing.

In October, a Post-Dispatch analysis of federal housing data showed that a handful of census tracts in north St. Louis County had more section 8 tenants than in all areas of the county south of Olive Boulevard. Data show that similar concentrations exist in many poorer city neighborhoods.

In a study of Section 8 use in cities nationwide, Metzger found that voucher users tended to be more concentrated in poor neighborhoods than non-voucher users who earned less than $15,000 a year. She also found that voucher users were more integrated in cities where landlords couldn’t reject Section 8 tenants.

Ordinances prohibiting landlords from denying Section 8 tenants have drawn lawsuits in other cities, and Metzger said she wouldn’t be surprised if that were to happen here.

“The demand that an owner accept a Section 8 tenant is not sustainable unless the (government) requirements for that unit are the same as market rate” units, said Jim Roos, president of Neighborhood Enterprises, a property management company that focuses on affordable housing and accepts tenants with vouchers.

He said that eliminating the special permit requirement was a good start, but said paperwork associated with Section 8 could be cumbersome and could create delays when trying to get a tenant into a unit.

If the process is significantly more burdensome than working with market-rate tenants, he said, “you’re making demands that are unfair and will be avoided by most landlords.”

Voucher use compared to household income by census tract

Source: 2013 estimates from U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development

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Walker Moskop is a data specialist and reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.