Ellen applied for a Section 8 housing voucher in 2018 because she was having trouble paying the rent for her Malden apartment, where she lives with her two sons.
She works part time at a nursing home. A voucher would be a huge help by covering a portion of her rent with government funds, capping the amount she pays at 30% of her income.
Finally, after three years of waiting, Ellen's voucher application was approved. She asked her landlord if she’d be willing to accept the Section 8 voucher.
“What she said was no, because they want to sell [the building], and they don’t want the commitment of having to give me a year’s lease.”
So Ellen started looking for a new place. When she called about one apartment she was interested in, the agent asked if she had a voucher.
“And I said, ‘Yes, I have a voucher,’” she remembered. “And they said, ‘Oh, I can’t work with that’ — just flat out, ‘I can’t work with the voucher.’ I mean, what can I say at that point? I can’t make somebody take it.”
Ellen is not alone. After waiting years to receive a voucher, many of the thousands of recipients discover it’s seemingly impossible to find an apartment where landlords and real estate agents are willing to accept it — especially when recipients have just a few months to find housing.
And that’s despite the fact that it’s illegal to discriminate against people in Massachusetts because they have a voucher. State law says landlords and agents can’t discriminate based on source of income, including vouchers.
The federal program, formed nearly 50 years ago, administers direct rental aid to landlords through local housing authorities. A major question for would-be renters and housing researchers is: why would landlords reject tenants whose rent is partly guaranteed by the government? Some in the real estate industry blame bureaucracy for monthslong delays, even as advocates offer evidence of discrimination and push for accountability.
For Ellen — who asked to use only her middle name to not jeopardize her chances of getting an apartment — those rejections kept happening.
“It took me maybe a couple of months to start to realize, ‘Wow, I think I’m getting really discriminated against here,’” she said.
Often she just doesn’t get a call back on an application, even after she’s already paid a fee. On top of that is the stress of the voucher’s deadline. She’s already gotten several extensions on the four-month time limit.
“I’m on a real time crunch because I really have to use it,” she said. “You know, I’m not sure how many more extensions I can get.”
Flunking the test
Stories like Ellen’s are so common that Bill Berman, a professor at Suffolk Law School, created a center to try to put an end to them. Suffolk’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program identifies, assesses and reports on the housing market’s biases, including Section 8 voucher discrimination.
“Unfortunately, it is very prevalent in spite of the fact that it’s illegal,” Berman said.
The discrimination was clear in a paper the Housing Discrimination Testing Program published in 2020 based on an investigation of apartments in the Greater Boston area.
Agents for 50 randomly chosen rental units were contacted by four testers from the Suffolk program: a white and Black person with a voucher, and a white and Black person without a voucher.
They found that a white person without a voucher was able to see the apartment they expressed interest in 80% of the time. By comparison, Black testers without vouchers saw the apartment 48% of the time.
But even that stark racial disparity was eclipsed by what they found when testers said they had a voucher. Voucher holders — regardless of race — were allowed to see an apartment 15% of the time.
“That was a rate of discrimination that surprised even us, who’ve been in this space working for people with vouchers for many, many years,” Berman said.
“That is an incredible burden to put on the most vulnerable people in our society, those who need the housing most,” he said. “Imagine that, if you want to see five apartments, you have to call [about] 50 housing providers.”
And those numbers are just to look at an apartment. After that, voucher holders still have to compete with market-rate tenants.
"People choose to discriminate against those with vouchers because they have certain ideas about what they're like because they have a voucher."Bill Berman, Suffolk Law School
Berman said he believes the discrepancy comes down to landlords’ bias against the low-income people who qualify for housing vouchers, even though it guarantees a portion of the rent will be paid.
“People choose to discriminate against those with vouchers because they have certain ideas about what they’re like because they have a voucher,” Berman said. “[And those ideas are] completely and utterly wrong.”
The problem is perpetuated by real estate brokers, Berman said.
“That’s what our data showed. Ninety-three percent of the time, our testers interacted with a broker,” he said. “And so why are they doing it? My sense is because they can, because their clients have asked them to. And they want the business.”
Brokers would have seen consequences and even could have had their licenses suspended for discrimination under a bill proposed in Massachusetts’ State House last year. Berman supported the proposal, which would have allowed federally funded fair housing enforcement agencies to refer discrimination cases to the state Board of Registration of Real Estate Brokers and Salespersons.
The bill didn’t become law last session. But Berman said he plans to continue pushing for the legislation, a fix to what he considers a broken system.
The Housing Discrimination Testing Program is now working with the City of Boston to conduct similar testing. In 100 tests conducted between January 2021 and February 2022, they found evidence of voucher discrimination 46% of the time. The findings prompted 16 discrimination complaints with the Boston Fair Housing Commission, resulting in $52,000 in settlements from landlords, management companies and real estate agents.
The program is now being funded by the state Department of Housing and Community Development to look for voucher discrimination statewide and provide assistance to voucher holders.
Too much red tape?
Realtors say they’re not the source of the problem.
Jason Gell, director-at-large of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, told GBH News that voucher holders just can’t compete with market-rate tenants because of the government bureaucracy that holds up their applications. When realtors reach out to their local housing authority to verify the voucher is valid and set up a time for the apartment inspections required under Section 8, they enter what Gell described as the local housing authorities’ slow and inefficient approval process.
“We’ll send in the information, we’ll take their application, and we’ll never hear from the authority again, and the application will get lost in the process,” Gell said. “And by the time we get a response from them, it’ll be rented to someone at market rate. I think that’s a much more common thing [than bias against voucher holders].”
As the part-owner of some rental properties, he’s worked with voucher holders in the past. Gell said the lengthy approval process wound up being expensive for him when he held apartments for two families with vouchers.
“It cost me thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars in lost rent trying to work through the process,” he said. “One took three months, one took two and a half months, with a substantial loss that I [took] in order to make the process successful. And it happened because of inefficiency in the process.”
Gell said it took a month before he could get the required apartment inspections scheduled.
“I don’t know if I could think of another industry where someone might be told, ‘Give us, like, a month and we’ll let you know if we’re going to move forward with this — and you’re going to bear that cost and there’s no recourse,’” he said. “I just don’t know of anywhere else we ask people to do something like that.”
Despite those challenges, the Massachusetts Landlords Association wants to see more of their members accepting tenants with vouchers.
“We’re there from an education point of view, trying to help people understand it’s a good program,” Doug Quattrochi, the association's president, said. “My longest resident ever was a Section 8 renter. There’s a lot of reasons why landlords should want to participate in Section 8, but the fact is [applicants with vouchers] will present with this scary bureaucracy looming.”
And, he said, there’s nothing forcing landlords to rent to voucher holders when there’s no shortage of tenants looking for an apartment in the current housing shortage.
"Sometimes when I hear landlords talking about, 'Well, there are some administrative burdens that I hear that housing authorities put in front of us that prevent us from renting to Section 8 participants,' that sounds like discrimination to me."David Gleich, Boston Housing Authority
Reducing the amount of time an application takes has been an undertaking by the Boston Housing Authority for the last five to 10 years, said David Gleich, the agency’s chief officer of leased housing and admissions.
“We’ve done a lot to streamline our communications with landlords, to make the paperwork less burdensome, to ensure that when we receive communication that it’s acted on promptly and we’re getting back to landlords,” Gleich said. “And we have a lot of great landlord partners that we work with over and over again. And once they understand the process that it takes to work with us, it’s really easy for them to come back to us and continue working with us.“
And even if it does take longer to process, he said, it’s still illegal under state law to discriminate against tenants because they have a voucher.
“Sometimes when I hear landlords talking about, ‘Well, there are some administrative burdens that I hear that housing authorities put in front of us that prevent us from renting to Section 8 participants,’ that sounds like discrimination to me.”
For Ellen, who recently received yet another extension to her Section 8 voucher, the frustrating search may soon be over. She finally had an application accepted by a landlord, the apartment inspection happened this week and she’s hoping to move in sometime later this month.
After reaching out about more than 80 apartments over the last year, she said it feels like a “miracle” to have finally made this progress. But she said she won’t breathe a sigh of relief until she has the keys in her hand and her family is officially in their new home.
GBH News pursued this story in response to audience questions about Section 8 vouchers. You can share your Priced Out story or ask a question you’d like answered by filling out this Google form. Find more from the series at Priced Out: The fight for housing in Massachusetts.