CLAYTON — A controversial measure to bar landlords from discriminating against renters who use housing vouchers appears to be stalled because of recent vacancies on the St. Louis County Council.
First-term Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, last month introduced a measure to add “source of income” to the list of protected categories in the county’s fair housing code. If adopted, the change would make it easier for people who participate in the Housing Choice Voucher program — still widely known as “Section 8” — to find places to live in the county.
Her proposal, Clancy says, aligns with efforts launched after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown to make the St. Louis region more inclusive and equitable.
“As an elected leader, I feel I have a mandate to act on that,” Clancy told the Post-Dispatch.
Housing choice vouchers enable low-income tenants to shop for housing on the private rental market. But the program works only if landlords accept the vouchers — and most do not.
In St. Louis County, there are about 6,400 housing units where vouchers are accepted, according to data provided by the Housing Authority of St. Louis County. Nearly two-thirds are located in eight ZIP code areas in North County, stretching from Florissant to Spanish Lake.
Underscoring the concentration of subsidized housing, one of those ZIP code areas — 63136 — has five times as many Section 8 units as does all of St. Louis County south of Highway 40 (Interstate 64). Canfield Green, one of several large apartment complexes in the 63136 area, is where Brown was shot on Aug. 9, 2014 by a Ferguson police officer, setting off months of civil unrest.
The concentration of subsidized housing also has racial implications. In St. Louis County, 93 percent of housing voucher recipients are black, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. About 24 percent of the county’s population is black, Census data shows.
Proponents of income anti-discrimination legislation, like Clancy’s, say such laws can increase the likelihood that voucher-holders will find housing in stable, safe neighborhoods instead of in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty.
Research has shown moving to an area with less crime, more neighborhood amenities and better schools can improve life outcomes for children of low-income parents. According to the HUD data, 63 percent of vouchers in St. Louis County go to single mothers.
Clancy’s bill also specifies other legal sources of income that would be protected, including HUD Veteran Affairs vouchers, subsidies for those living with physical or mental disabilities or short-term rental assistance funds, such as Rapid Re-Housing, which are meant to address homelessness.
St. Louis city has a law similar to the one Clancy proposed, but the problem is still common and widespread in the city. City officials cite a knowledge gap with both landlords and tenants as the problem; some landlords say they were never informed about the law, and tenants may not know who to talk to when it happens, or what this type of discrimination looks like.
The Housing Choice Voucher program serves 2.2 million households in the U.S., according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. About 13,000 of those households are in St. Louis city and county. Waiting lists for vouchers at both housing authorities are currently closed.
The St. Louis County Affordable Housing Trust Fund Task Force released a set of recommendations in April, meant to guide stakeholders and officials on how to best meet the area’s housing needs. One of the recommendations includes the county’s adoption of a law like Clancy’s.
According to the report:“Stakeholder survey results identified housing choice vouchers as the top housing service or benefit that is effective but too scarce. However, according to pilot work with housing choice vouchers and helping low-income families move to areas of opportunity, the Task Force learned that discrimination plays a role in where renters can live.”
Clancy introduced her bill before County Executive Steve Stenger was indicted and resigned. Council Chairman Sam Page succeeded Stenger, and Page appointed councilwoman Hazel Erby to a job in his administration. The moves left the county council with two vacancies and a Republican majority.
While she’s unsure what kind of support the bill will get from other council members, Clancy said she’s noticed a “groundswell” of community support.
Carmen Garcia, of University City, attended the council’s meeting on April 30, and said she supports Clancy’s bill. Garcia said when she moved back to St. Louis four years ago, she intentionally chose to buy a home across the street from an apartment complex where many tenants use vouchers.
“This is what I have observed in the four years I’ve been there — without exception, parents are there because they are trying to do the best for their children and provide them with a safe environment and a better education than they would have otherwise,” Garcia said at the meeting.
Some landlords, too, cheer the benefits of accepting vouchers.
“It is guaranteed income, that’s the positive,” said David Dothage, a landlord who accepts Section 8 at his St. Louis city and county properties. “And I don’t particularly mind all the paperwork for the trade-off you get.”
But Dothage said there are parts of the process that need to be simplified. Otherwise, the incentives don’t outweigh the time costs for landlords.
Usually the paperwork and one additional inspection aren’t a big deal, Dothage said, though he can understand why some landlords may not want to deal with it.
The uncertainty early in the voucher-acceptance process may also make landlords weary, he said. Though a portion of the rent is guaranteed, the amount is not, until negotiations with the housing authority are finished.
First, a landlord applies to be a voucher property. She or he fills out a packet to turn into the authority with property information and a desired rent figure. After approval, the housing authority and landlord negotiate the rent. Once the rent is decided, then the landlord finds out what percentage is paid by the housing authority and what portion comes from the tenant.
“It’s not a simple process for someone who really doesn’t want to do it,” Dothage said. “I can see that point of view. For me, it’s just worth it.”
Currently, landlords in the county who want to accept vouchers have to pass an inspection by the municipal government where the property is located as well as an inspection by the housing authority.
Reducing the number of required inspections from two to one and providing clearer information about guaranteed rent to landlords upfront may entice more into accepting Section 8, Dothage said.
St. Louis city used to require more than two inspections for voucher landlords. At the same time the source of income law went into effect, the city also enacted legislation that eliminated inspections, cutting it down to two; one by the city, and one by the St. Louis Housing Authority.
Will municipalities step up?
Clancy’s bill would cover only unincorporated St. Louis County — and that’s a concern for councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, now the council’s presiding officer.
“That’s somewhere between a quarter and a third of the county, and the rest of the county escapes,” he said. “So there’s a clear and distinct inequality in the application.”
Trakas also believes what Clancy wants to accomplish is already done by the federal Fair Housing Act and the Missouri Human Rights Act. The problem, he said, is that victims of this kind of discrimination choose not to pursue the avenues available to them to seek enforcement.
If more of the county’s 88 municipalities come up with similar laws, Trakas says he may warm to the idea.
“If this were a countywide thing, it’d be a different conversation,” he said. Trakas said he has directed his staff to find out how many municipalities in the county are attempting to pass legislation similar to Clancy’s.
Some cities, in fact, are having those conversations.
Laura Arnold, a first-term member of the Webster Groves City Council, said colleagues on the council have been “relatively receptive” to the discussion.
The Webster Groves ordinance, though not drafted yet, would add “source of income” to the city’s housing anti-discrimination ordinance. City leaders have not talked specifically about enforcement yet, Arnold said.
“That’s a real problem. I’ll be honest, I don’t know if anyone has had a good suggestion on how to address that,” Arnold said.
The Clayton Board of Aldermen also will consider similar legislation at its May 28 meeting, according to Assistant City Manager Andrea Muskopf.
There is no federal law requiring landlords to accept vouchers, but almost a dozen states and more than 50 cities and counties have enacted similar legislation.