When Connie Shaw has to find a new apartment, her anxiety flares up.
It took her four months to find her current Madison apartment. During the search, Shaw slept in her car and showered at a friend's place. She reached out to landlords constantly, but received at least a dozen rejections and countless phone calls went unreturned.
Most of the time, Shaw found it impossible to know exactly why she was rejected; a Madison ordinance requiring that landlords explain rejections in writing was nullified by state law in 2014. It could be her credit score, which after a four-month stint of homelessness “took a nosedive.”
But at least four landlords told her straight-out that they wouldn’t accept her because she’s on Section 8. That’s illegal discrimination under Madison and Dane County ordinances, but almost no one files discrimination complaints.
“I cannot recall when I got the last complaint,” Marcia MacKenzie, corporation counsel for Dane County, wrote in an email. “It has been years.”
It's the same story at Madison’s Department of Civil Rights. They don't get many complaints about Section 8 discrimination.
Is it a case of no complaints, no problem? Not exactly.
“I don’t think the amount of complaints in any way represents the amount of discrimination happening,” said Erika Sanders, the director of program services at Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, calling it “the teeniest tip of the iceberg.”
Asked about what it feels like to search for an apartment with a voucher, Shaw said: “I would rather live in my car.”
Alyssa Riphon is an investigator for the city’s Department of Civil Rights. Her office has investigated a “handful” of Section 8 discrimination complaints, but they hear from community partners that discrimination happens more widely, she said.
Section 8 tenants pay about 30 percent of their income and Department of Housing and Urban Development picks up the rest of fair-market rent. Local housing authorities distribute the vouchers; the Madison Community Development Authority administers the program in Madison and Dane County Housing Authority is responsible for the rest of county.
Rob Dicke, executive director of the DCHA, hears about discrimination from the DCHA housing specialists and renters. Renters will call landlords asking if they accept Section 8 and the landlord will say no.
While most voucher holders eventually find apartments, some never do. From 2015-16, the CDA issued 185 vouchers. Of those, 19 recipients took their vouchers to other jurisdictions and 17 vouchers expired (7 of those already lived in subsidized housing). In 2016, 16 out of 55, or 29 percent of the DCHA’s vouchers expired.
“That’s pretty bad if a quarter of the vouchers don’t get used because people can’t find a place to live,” said Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center.
Of course, there are other factors that make it tough for voucher holders to find housing. People waiting for vouchers are likely living in places they can’t afford, leading to credit and eviction issues, Dicke said. And with Madison’s tight rental market, landlords can afford to reject applicants.
BARRIERS TO REPORTING
If discrimination is happening, why aren’t renters complaining about it?
They may not know how, and timeliness is a factor. The city’s complaint process takes about 120 days, which is “way too long if you’re looking for housing or worried that you’re going to be evicted,” Riphon said. Until last year, complaints couldn’t be filed online, which meant residents had to mail in complaints or drop by the office.
Tom Conrad, interim executive director at the CDA, thinks families don’t have time to complain when they need a roof over their heads. Others may also be leery about a reputation as a “problem” tenant.
Shaw didn’t file complaints either.
“It’s like I know better,” she said. “That takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of time … Why just complain about that one when there’s a frickin’ list of them?”
Other tenants may not know that Section 8 discrimination is illegal. Renters will regularly come in to the TRC and ask for “the list of landlords that accept Section 8," Konkel said. Sanders said the vast majority of people served by the Fair Housing Council don’t know that Section 8 is protected under local ordinance.
Even with few complaints, Konkel thinks anti-discrimination ordinances are still necessary, because once they're aware of the law, the majority of landlords will abide by it. But she knows there’s still a lingering percentage of landlords who don’t know about the law.
“I think there's a lack of knowledge ... some willful ignorance and some outright discrimination,” Dicke said.
Housing advocates are working to cut down on the percentage of landlords and renters who are unaware that Section 8 discrimination is illegal.
“The laws have changed so much over the last five years that I think a lot of people in the industry don’t know what the laws are and don’t know that Dane County has an ordinance,” Dicke said, referring to sweeping state tenant-landlord laws changes since 2011.
“We absolutely need to have the political will and financial resources to increase educational outreach to both using consumers and housing providers,” Sanders said.
The Department of Civil Rights launched a certified community partners program, teaching nonprofits in Madison to help clients file a discrimination complaint. The department is also looking to secure a contract with HUD in order to quicken the turnaround time of housing cases to two weeks. The CDA does regular presentations for the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin and employs a half-time staff person for landlord outreach and education.
When renters complain about discrimination, the CDA and DCHA will reach out to the landlord. Once landlords better understand the law and what Section 8 involves, they’ll usually change their mind and decide to rent to the voucher holder, Conrad said.
There’s a stigma that Section 8 residents will be bad tenants, Dicke said, and it’s true that Section 8 involves more work for the landlord: yearly compliance checks, paperwork and accepting rent payments from two different sources. But it’s also a way to guarantee the majority of rent, and some landlords specifically seek out Section 8 voucher holders for that reason, Conrad said.
Konkel thinks proactive measures could help cut down on discrimination. It would also be relatively easy to ask tenants which landlords turned them down and look for patterns, she said.
Shaw has a similar opinion.
“Why don’t we find out who they are and just point them all out at once?” she said.
Shaw’s grateful for the financial help, but she’s already dreading her next apartment search.
“I just want a decent place to live,” she said.