Section 8 vouchers are supposed to help the poor reach better neighborhoods. Texas law gets in the way.

Denise Taylor (right), who has a Section 8 housing voucher but has been unsuccessful finding a place to live, continues to search at the Houston office of Realtor Pamela Banks on April 19, 2018.
Denise Taylor (right), who has a Section 8 housing voucher but has been unsuccessful finding a place to live, continues to search at the Houston office of Realtor Pamela Banks on April 19, 2018.
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

When Denise Taylor heard police sirens, she rushed to the porch of her Chicago apartment to look down the street.

It was early 2017, and Taylor had only recently allowed her 13-year-old daughter Kristina to play with friends outside. Not in the park around the corner — Taylor couldn’t see quite that far. Their neighborhood on the west side of Chicago was not a place for children to roam. It wasn’t uncommon to hear gunshots; Kristina’s school regularly went on lockdown because of nearby shootings.

As she looked out from the porch, she saw a police car chasing another vehicle — and there stood Kristina, playing nearby. Suddenly, one of the cars lost control, driving over the curb and crashing into a tree, a hair’s breadth from her daughter.

This was the moment Taylor decided to leave. She knew she needed to make a drastic change to improve life for her youngest daughter. She remembers telling Kristina: “That is not normal. What you’re seeing here, that is not black life.”

“But where can I take her to really see it?”

The answer came to her online. A deeply religious woman in the digital age, Taylor spends a lot of time watching pastors give sermons on websites like Periscope and Facebook. One day in the spring of 2017 as she watched a sermon livestream, she commented with a simple, “Hi, I’m from Chicago.” The pastor wrote back, “Hi, I’m from Texas.”

The pastor’s name was Pamela Banks. And it just so happened that she was also a real estate agent. Many of her clients used a federal government benefit called a housing choice voucher, also known as a Section 8 voucher, which subsidizes a family’s rental payments.

Taylor was familiar with vouchers. She’d received one a few years earlier after a difficult divorce, and it allowed her to pay $238 a month to live on the first floor of a white, two-bedroom Chicago apartment; the Chicago Housing Authority paid the remaining $712.

One perk of the federal program is that renters can use their vouchers anywhere in the country. Banks told Taylor that if she really wanted to leave her Chicago neighborhood in search of a new beginning, Banks could help her look in Houston. Taylor and her daughter could even stay in Banks’ house during their search.

Houston was a booming city with some attractive offerings: plenty of jobs, racial diversity and comparatively cheap housing. Taylor had few connections there, but the small church community she’d found online was ready to welcome her.

There was just one problem: Thanks to a recent state law, Texas had become one of the least accommodating states for Section 8 voucher-holders.

While states and cities across the U.S. have outlawed discrimination against voucher-holders, Texas is one of just two states that’s done the opposite. In 2015, Texas passed a law that ensured landlords cannot be punished for discriminating against families with vouchers.

The law essentially legalized a long-standing practice among landlords that blocked voucher holders, who are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, from moving to better neighborhoods.

And nowhere is more emblematic of that than Houston, the state’s largest city, where one in four families who receive housing assistance never gets to use it because they can’t find a landlord to accept their voucher. A Texas Tribune analysis found that the majority of Houston families who successfully use their voucher end up living in deeply impoverished neighborhoods. About 90 percent of them are black.

Apartment owners say they shouldn’t be forced to participate in the federal assistance program they say is riddled with bureaucratic problems, but advocates for affordable housing argue that thousands of families like Taylor’s have been harmed as a result.

Taylor had no idea about the law, though. When Banks made her offer, it seemed like fate.

“I was ready to leave Illinois,” Taylor remembers. “I said, Lord, where am I going? He said Texas — the spirit said move to Texas. I just knew it was time for me to leave Illinois. The Lord said Texas.”

How hard could it be to find a new place?

A pair of hurdles: Harvey and state policy

Taylor’s intuition — that moving her daughter to a better neighborhood could improve their lives over the long term — is backed up by decades of research. And the research is based primarily on families a lot like hers, who sought to use the Section 8 program as a springboard into a more prosperous area.

Signed into law in the 1970s, the Section 8 program marked the beginning of a new era in government housing assistance for the poor. Rather than deal with the expense of building and maintaining public housing developments — which fell out of political favor as they grew to symbolize the dangers of concentrated poverty and government neglect — Congress chose to give out subsidies in the private market.

The program was also seen as a possible solution to an intractable national problem: residential segregation. Responding to lawsuits filed throughout the second half of the 20th century, judges admonished housing authorities across the country for concentrating low-income people of color in a few areas. In Dallas, for example, the local housing authority in 1955 built 3,500 public housing units in a high-crime neighborhood across the street from a lead smelter. Originally, the project had white and Hispanic residents, but by the 1970s almost everyone living there was black.

Meanwhile, public housing meant for white residents was scattered across the city in more desirable areas.

After early successes with a voucher program in Chicago launched in the 1970s, the federal government tried a national experiment in 1994: Thousands of families in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York received vouchers they could use if they moved to an area where less than 10 percent of residents lived in poverty. Eight years later, after a court settlement in a case filed against Dallas by civil rights lawyers, thousands of Dallas families that lived in public housing began to receive vouchers, along with extra resources to move into neighborhoods of higher opportunity — usually defined as areas with a relatively low poverty rate and a relatively large white population.

The benefits for families that managed to move proved to be substantial. Researchers found women were less likely to suffer from extreme obesity, diabetes and depression. A subsequent study found that their children — particularly those who could move before age 13 — were more likely to attend college. Researchers also analyzed tax records and projected that those children would earn about $302,000 more over their lifetimes than children who remained in public housing — and would pay enough additional income taxes to offset the cost of the program.

These were the kind of outcomes Taylor dreamed of for her daughter. So, before sunrise on July 31, 2017, she and Kristina set out from Chicago to Houston, packing everything that would fit into their Ford Focus hatchback.

Banks was determined to help Taylor find a better neighborhood for her daughter, and though she knew it would take work, she was optimistic. Taylor appeared to be a strong candidate: She’d worked at a Kroger grocery store in Chicago and could easily transfer to a Houston location. She didn’t have any recent criminal history or evictions.

But none of that seemed to matter when Banks and Taylor picked up the phone to try to find a place that would take her voucher. The conversation almost always went like this:

“This is Pam, with Strong Tower Realty and Management, and I noticed you have a listing that’s been out there on the market more than 90 days. Do you think your owners will work with Section 8 on that one?”

“No.”

Sometimes, they didn’t even let her finish her sentence. Other times, they just hung up.

Realtor Pamela Banks makes a call in her office in Houston on April 19, 2018. Seated by her her is one of her clients, Denise Taylor, who has a federal Section 8 housing voucher but has been unsuccessful finding a place to live.
Realtor Pamela Banks makes a call in her office in Houston on April 19, 2018. Seated by her her is one of her clients, Denise Taylor, who has a federal Section 8 housing voucher but has been unsuccessful finding a place to live.
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

It’s illegal under federal fair housing law to refuse to rent to someone on the basis of their race. In several states and large cities throughout the country, it’s also illegal to turn someone away merely because they have a housing choice voucher. But that’s not the case anywhere in Texas, thanks to the 2015 state law. Within days, Taylor had heard dozens of rejections.

“It’s degrading, and if you’re not built up morally, it can really put you in a depressed kind of state,” she said.

Then, another obstacle emerged: Three weeks after Taylor arrived in Houston, Hurricane Harvey dumped some 50 inches of rain on the Houston area. Raised in the Midwest, Taylor had never seen so much rain, and she looked out the window with horror as the floodwaters rose. “What do we do?” she asked Banks.

“You don’t do nothing!” Banks said. “We gonna stay in the house, and we’re gonna eat and get fat. We ain’t doing nothing.”

The flooding spared Banks’ neighborhood. But the storm damaged 470,000 rental units in Houston — creating a citywide rush for housing by displaced flood victims. For Taylor, finding a good place to live was about to get much harder.

Denise Taylor shows a document with tenant selection criteria required for an affordable housing community.
Denise Taylor shows a document with tenant selection criteria required for an affordable housing community.
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

“I know the struggle”

Banks had spent years pleading with landlords to take a chance on tenants with vouchers, including herself. She grew up in a rural town outside of Houston, and after a four-year stint as a Navy aircraft mechanic in the 1980s, she returned to the city as a mother of five kids.

In 1990, after separating from her husband, she signed up for a Section 8 voucher. She spent seven years on a waiting list.

In the meantime, Banks found the cheapest apartments she could; for a time, she and her kids squatted in an abandoned house. She worked at Taco Bell and at a tax preparation service, having learned to do taxes in her high school consumer math class.

Eventually, she got her real estate license. And when she finally got her voucher — an $850 per month subsidy for a three-bedroom apartment — she spent weeks hunting for housing before finding what seemed like a long shot: a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home with a fireplace in the coveted suburb of Katy.

Realtor Pamela Banks at her office in Houston on April 19, 2018.
Realtor Pamela Banks at her office in Houston on April 19, 2018.
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

She told the landlord: “I’m Pam, and I have [Section 8] housing. And I know you may or may not know about housing, and you may have a stereotyped image, but take this home and pray about it. And let me know if you want to work with me.’”

By spring break, she and her kids had moved in.

“I know the struggle,” Banks says now. That’s why she kept pushing Taylor: “If one person says no, somebody else is going to say yes. You’ve got to be persistent.”

An uphill battle

Housing officials have long known that voucher discrimination is a major barrier keeping people with vouchers out of high-quality neighborhoods. But only recently have they come to understand the scope of the problem.

For Tom McCasland, the realization began when he took the helm at the Harris County Housing Authority in 2015, leaving behind a high-paying job at a prestigious law firm. McCasland grew up in a family of 10 children and spent most of his high school years living in a house with no electricity. So he was passionate about helping poor families.

But that proved to be a lot harder than he expected.

Not long after starting the job, McCasland tried an experiment. He contacted 50 apartment complexes, all of them in areas zoned to good schools. He told them he had a job and a Section 8 voucher. Only one was willing to accept it.

If a voucher-holder can’t find a landlord to accept their payment, they’re required to give back the voucher in as little as two months. In Houston, one in four families has to return a voucher for that reason, according to the Houston Housing Authority.

“We’re pushing upstream here,” said McCasland, who is now director of Houston’s Department of Housing and Community Development. “There’s been decades and decades of opposition to this.”

Recent studies have revealed similar problems in cities throughout Texas. In 2012, the Austin Tenants’ Council surveyed 77,000 units that had rent and income requirements low enough for Section 8 voucher holders to be able to live there. Only about 10 percent of those units were open to voucher holders. Two years later, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin released a bombshell study that found Austin, out of all major, fast-growing cities in the country, was the only one with a shrinking African-American population.

Apartment managers say the Section 8 program involves a frustrating amount of paperwork and bureaucratic delays, and that many property owners just don’t want to deal with the hassle of it.

Debris from Hurricane Harvey outside an apartment complex in Houston on Sept. 14, 2017.
Debris from Hurricane Harvey outside an apartment complex in Houston on Sept. 14, 2017.
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Landlords feared “a situation where owners would in effect have to take housing vouchers and participate in a federal program whether they chose to or not, even though the program was designed to be voluntary,” said David Mintz, head lobbyist for the Texas Apartment Association.

Affordable housing advocates don’t buy that excuse. Last year, the Dallas-based Inclusive Communities Project surveyed about 1,900 properties and found just 226 that accepted vouchers — nearly all of them located in poor, predominantly minority areas. But not a single apartment complex surveyed in 26 Dallas suburbs accepted vouchers; nearly all of those suburbs are majority-white.

During the Obama administration, Houston housing officials increased the dollar value of vouchers for families who can find a place to live in a high-opportunity ZIP code. Still, they acknowledge, they’ve had little success persuading landlords in those ZIP codes to say yes.

According to a Texas Tribune analysis of data provided by the Houston and Harris County Housing authorities, more than one-quarter of families with vouchers live in areas where more than 50 percent of residents are black and more than 20 percent of residents live in poverty.

The way Taylor sees it, she’s deliberately being steered toward the poorest and most racially segregated neighborhoods. And she thinks it’s because her voucher is a proxy for her race.

“My thing is, it’s guaranteed money. It’s government money that you know you’re going to get every month,” Taylor said. But landlords still said no.

Austin becomes a battlefield over Section 8

In late 2014, Kathy Carlton took her seat in the Austin City Council chambers after a long drive from Dallas.

Austin was about to make Section 8 voucher holders a protected class under its housing nondiscrimination law. That meant landlords who turned tenants away simply for having a Section 8 voucher could face a penalty of up to $10,000 for a first-time offense.

City council members wanted to follow the lead of blue states like Oregon and Massachusetts by creating a legal protection for voucher-holders; studies suggest doing so can make a difference in helping voucher-holders move to better neighborhoods. In New York City, where buildings with six or more apartments must accept vouchers, the city recently sued landlords for discriminating against voucher-holders and has also created a unit to enforce the law.

When Carlton, a lobbyist for the Dallas Apartment Association, first heard about Austin’s plan, she’d shrugged it off as another radical proposal from one of the state’s most liberal cities. “At that point we all thought this was just — pardon me — but the crazy Austin council again doing something that nobody else has thought about,” she said in an interview earlier this summer.

Then, as she sat in the council chambers, she got word that federal officials had told Dallas they wanted the city to consider its own, similar ordinance. Across the country, local officials were under pressure from the Obama administration to make more vigorous efforts to reduce housing segregation.

Suddenly, Carlton said, a similar ordinance “was on our own doorstep.”

Property managers and apartment lobbyists from across the state came to Austin to protest. Being forced to rent to voucher-holders, with the housing authority’s mandatory inspections and bureaucratic headaches, threatened a landlord’s bottom line and could cause them to raise rents, they said.

Mintz, the Texas Apartment Association lobbyist, issued a warning to the city council from the chamber’s front microphone: “Should the ordinance pass today,” he said, the trade group’s “top issue … will be seeking a state law that pre-empts ordinances of this type.”

The ordinance passed. So Mintz and other property owners turned to the conservative Texas Legislature, where state lawmakers have a long history of overturning local ordinances they consider unfriendly to business.

Before long, Mintz found an ally in Lubbock, home to a powerful state senator and an equally powerful apartment company.

A ban on bans

Lubbock has a quarter-million residents, but only about 850 families have Section 8 vouchers — a tiny fraction of the number in Texas’ largest cities — and there is no indication the city ever considered passing a nondiscrimination ordinance like Austin’s.

State Sens. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock (right), chats with Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, on the Senate floor in Austin on March 30, 2017.
State Sens. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock (right), chats with Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, on the Senate floor in Austin on March 30, 2017.
Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

The issue nonetheless caught the eye of area state Sen. Charles Perry, a Republican who describes himself as a staunch believer in Texans’ private property rights. He also has a longstanding relationship with the Texas Apartment Association, which has contributed $36,500 to his campaign since 2014 — more than most other state lawmakers. Perry declined to be interviewed, but at a 2015 legislative hearing, he said he filed the bill because “for most landlords, accepting the housing vouchers is a tedious process.”

Lubbock is home to some of the Texas Apartment Association’s biggest individual financial backers: partners at Madera Residential, a property company that manages apartment communities all over the state. The company did not respond to emailed questions.

In late December 2014, days after the ordinance passed, Perry — whose re-election campaign received a $5,000 check from the apartment association that fall — filed the bill the apartment lobby had been waiting for: No city could pass an ordinance that penalized a landlord for refusing to lease to someone with a housing-choice voucher.

It was a ban on Section 8 discrimination bans.

Randy Erben, who worked as a lobbyist in 2014 for the Texas Apartment Association, said there was nothing inappropriate about the group’s contributions to lawmakers. “Money doesn’t get influence. What money gets is access.”

Perry’s bill moved quickly through the Legislature. At its first committee hearing in March 2015, state Sen. Don Huffines, a Republican real estate developer from Dallas who co-authored the bill — and who has received $27,500 in apartment association donations since 2014 — said that Austin’s ordinance could “trample the liberties of the business community or their citizens.”

“To me, tyranny from your neighbor or your local government or from a dictator in a foreign country is still tyranny,” said Huffines, who lost his re-election bid earlier this month.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, said he wasn’t surprised that the Legislature sought to overturn Austin’s ordinance. But he was surprised when lawmakers agreed to allow nondiscrimination protections for veterans who receive housing vouchers. The federal housing voucher program for veterans had just as much bureaucracy and headache as the Section 8 program for non-veterans, Watson said, so why let cities protect some voucher-holders and not others?

“In my view, they gave up the ability to make any of the arguments that they wanted to make about why this was bad,” Watson said. “If you’re going to allow it in one place, it ought to be allowed across the board.” (Watson’s campaign also received a $5,000 donation from the apartment group in late 2014, though he was a chief opponent of the bill.)

Dan Huberty, a Republican state representative from Houston who carried the legislation in the Texas House, said the bill “was put together thoughtfully” and that the veterans’ voucher program is very small compared with the full Section 8 program. Besides, he said, “I can’t imagine a business that would want to discriminate against a veteran.”

The bill ultimately passed both chambers of the Legislature — with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed — and when Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law, Austin’s ordinance was voided. The pressure from the Obama administration to pass similar protections for voucher-holders in Dallas evaporated.

It was a mammoth victory for the apartment lobby. Texas’ law allowing landlords to turn away voucher-holders was one of only two of its kind in the nation; Indiana passed a similar law the same year.

“I think that we prevailed not because we made a great issue on this point, at this time,” Carlton, the Dallas lobbyist, said in a video celebrating their victory. “I think it’s because we have long-standing relationships with many of these elected officials, and they understand that when we really come and push that hard, it must be pretty darn important.” (A few weeks after she was interviewed by the Tribune, Carlton died of cancer in July.)

Steered into the poorest, most racially segregated neighborhoods

In Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, it’s illegal to turn a renter away simply because they have a voucher. The first time a Houston landlord hung up on Taylor, she was shocked.

“That is a clear sign of discrimination, because why don’t you take Section 8?,” she said. “What’s wrong with Section 8?”

After consulting with Banks, Taylor had her heart set on moving to a handful of low-poverty ZIP codes nearby. The top contenders were 77388 and 77389, near the north Houston suburbs of Spring and the Woodlands, where the schools were highly rated and about 60 percent of the 75,000 residents were white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But out of the 17,000 families that get vouchers from the Houston Housing Authority, only 36 live in those ZIP codes, according to the Tribune’s analysis.

Researchers generally consider a neighborhood to offer “high opportunity” if less than 10 percent of its residents live in poverty and more than 70 percent of residents are white. Only 0.6 percent of families who receive vouchers from Houston or Harris County Housing Authorities live in such areas.

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By contrast, the ZIP code where recipients of Houston Housing Authority vouchers are most likely to live is 77021, south of downtown — where 71 percent of residents are black, 17 percent are Hispanic and nearly 30 percent of people live in poverty.

Huberty, the Houston Republican lawmaker who was one of the strongest proponents of the state law favored by landlords, said there are other ways to remedy the problem of voucher concentration. He pointed to two low-income apartment complexes that had been built in his district in recent years. Because they were built with federal subsidies, they are required to accept Section 8 vouchers.

But both of those projects are restricted to seniors and don’t allow families with children. And it’s often difficult to build these developments, known as low-income housing tax credit projects, in higher-opportunity areas, because of neighborhood opposition.

In 2015, the Harris County Housing Authority — then led by McCasland — aimed to build a subsidized apartment complex for low-income seniors in Tomball, in a majority-white area where less than 10 percent of residents live in poverty. McCasland was inundated with messages of opposition from the public.

“I’d like my property values to remain high, not be brought down because of Section 8 housing!” one person commented on an online petition to oppose the building. Another wrote: “Our government just can’t get it through their thick skulls that bringing Section 8 housing to good neighborhoods does not inspire the people in the Section 8 housing to suddenly become ambitious. All it does is forfeit good neighborhoods and force people like me to move out further for a longer commute.”

Houston officials ultimately moved the project forward after neighbors insisted that it only be open to elderly, childless adults — even though families with young children would most benefit most from moving to a suburb like Tomball, research shows.

The following year, debate exploded over a proposal from the Houston Housing Authority to build another such project in the wealthy Galleria neighborhood west of downtown. Hundreds of angry neighbors, most of them white, showed up to a public meeting to protest the idea in the spring of 2016. They said the project — known as Fountain View, because of the name of the road it would be located on — was too expensive, would increase traffic, and would overcrowd the local elementary school.

Many insisted they had nothing against low-income housing in their neighborhood, and that racism played no part in their decision. But an investigation by the Department and Housing and Urban Development months later concluded otherwise. After the city killed the project, federal officials wrote that the decision “was based in part on racially motivated opposition.” They added that some who opposed the project used “code words for racial animus … based on unfounded stereotypes about the type of people who may occupy the housing.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in his office in City Hall on Sept. 25, 2017.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in his office in City Hall on Sept. 25, 2017.
Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune

The investigation deeply upset Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who made the final decision to stop the project. In an interview with the Tribune this year, he said he was offended by the idea that people in lower-income areas “cannot participate in the American dream” unless they can move to wealthier neighborhoods.

“You mean that I’m going to tell kids coming from low-income communities that the only way they can navigate through the American dream is that I have to build, and put them over there? No! I won’t do it,” he said. “Don’t give us a little boat that’s going to save some. Fix the damn ship!”

But clients who visit Pamela Banks’ office feel differently. Over the course of a few days the Tribune spent in her Houston office this spring, the request from renters was universal: They wanted to move to a safer neighborhood with better schools. “Just somewhere with a good neighborhood, like you know, a nice area with a good school district,” one woman told her over the phone.

Banks said it’s hard for her to watch debates like the one over Fountain View and not take them personally. To her, the opposition was saying: “You really don’t want us in your neighborhood.”

“They want Section 8 people out of the community”

According to landlords, the problems with Section 8 aren’t about discrimination, or even the tenants themselves. For Robbie Matzen, the program’s flaws can be boiled down to one exhaust fan.

A few years ago, Matzen recalls, she was getting ready to lease a unit to a tenant with a voucher from a local housing authority. A property manager at the Manhattan Apartments in far north Dallas, which has a long history of working with voucher-holders, Matzen expected everything to go smoothly. About 4 percent of the units rented by her parent company, LumaCorp, are occupied by families with vouchers.

But after the standard inspection that’s required for a Section 8 tenant, the inspector told her, “I can’t approve this apartment without an exhaust fan in the bathroom.”

Matzen protested: The building had been rented to other Section 8 tenants without exhaust fans in the bathroom. Besides, there was nowhere for the fan to ventilate to except the hallway of the unit.

“I don’t care where it goes,” Matzen recalls him saying. “It just has to be there.”

Facing the prospect of her voucher expiring, the tenant needed to move in within a few days. So Matzen decided to bite her tongue and install a $30 fan she knew would serve no purpose.

“It’s useless. It’s a useless exhaust fan,” she said. Matzen and her team subsequently decided they would no longer work with renters with vouchers from the housing authority.

These are familiar complaints among landlords, who say they often have to track down late payments from local housing authorities or find themselves having to return payments that continue to come long after a tenant has moved out. And if a unit fails its inspection, sometimes for reasons that feel as arbitrary as the exhaust fan, it sometimes takes weeks to reschedule — which costs them money as units sit empty.

“I just do not think you’re going to get the owners and operators across the country … to accept Section 8 on some type of mandatory basis when it was already always designed as a voluntary program,” said Stacy Hunt, who works at at Greystar, a large property management company in Houston.

Advocates for low-income tenants concede the housing choice voucher program has its drawbacks. But they question why landlords are willing to put up with its difficulties in certain neighborhoods — especially low-income areas where people of color are overrepresented — and not in others.

Last year, the Dallas-based Inclusive Communities Project filed a lawsuit against Lincoln Property Company, one of the state’s largest managers of apartment complexes. ICP claimed that Lincoln Property had violated federal fair housing law by only agreeing to rent to voucher-holders in areas where the majority of residents are not white.

The group presented a list of nine Lincoln-owned or managed apartments that accept Section 8 vouchers, all of which are in census tracts where people of color make up a majority. One, called the Flats at Five Mile Creek, is in an area where just 4 percent of residents are white and more than 40 percent live in poverty. Meanwhile, an online advertisement for Park Central at Flower Mound — where just 4 percent of residents live in poverty and 84 percent are white — is very clear.

“Our community is not authorized to accept housing vouchers. Our community is not authorized to accept section 8 housing. Our community is not authorized to accept ANY government subsidized rent programs,” the ad reads, according to documents provided by the Inclusive Communities Project.

In its response to the lawsuit, lawyers for Lincoln Property wrote that most of its apartments that accept Section 8 vouchers were built with federal subsidies, and so they are required by law to take vouchers, though that isn’t the case for Flats at Five Mile Creek.

Mintz, the Texas Apartment Association lobbyist, declined to discuss why some apartment owners only rent to voucher-holders in poor, predominantly minority areas.

“We believe very strongly in the Fair Housing Act and promote it and educate our members about it,” he said.

“It’s still just something different”

When Isabel Lopez took the helm of a newly created Houston nonprofit in 2017, she had high hopes. Armed with a $1.2 million grant, she wanted to help 350 families with children move to neighborhoods with top-rated schools.

The idea was to use the nonprofit, known as NestQuest, to cut through red tape and offer financial incentives to landlords who were wary of renting to a voucher-holder. NestQuest would sign a contract guaranteeing on-time rental payments every month, including utilities; if the tenant or housing authority skips out, the nonprofit absorbs the loss. NestQuest would also make sure the tenant has rental insurance and promises to pay for any repairs needed after move-out.

In addition, landlords would never have to deal directly with the housing authority or even the tenant. They would only have to make contact with NestQuest, which would act like a corporate leasing agent.

“I was extremely optimistic,” Lopez said. “Easy, like I don’t see anybody saying no to this.”

But it didn’t take long for her outlook to change.

Even when landlords were promised relief from all the administrative burdens, they were still resistant to rent to voucher-holders. They told Lopez they were afraid that voucher-holders would be harder to evict. They said they’d heard stories about problem tenants from colleagues.

As of mid-October, a year into NestQuest’s tenure, only 17 families had been able to rent units through the nonprofit, mostly because landlords are still not interested. “It’s still that hesitation … ‘I don’t want to work with someone who’s on Section 8,’” Lopez said.

Ann Lott, who runs a similar effort in the Dallas area through the nonprofit Inclusive Communities Project, said she’s also run into a lot of resistance. “Typically, the response I get [from landlords] is silence. Terrible, deafening silence,” she said. “They don’t respond to letters, they don’t respond to emails. They just don’t respond.”

Now in its second year of operation, the Inclusive Communities program is currently helping about two dozen families with vouchers move to wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods. Almost all of them live in apartment complexes managed by one company — LumaCorp, headed by Ian Mattingly.

For Mattingly, the program is a no-brainer. “Think about all of the things you don’t like, and imagine you can hand that to somebody else.”

So why aren’t more companies and landlords willing to participate? “I’m hesitant to speculate,” Mattingly said. “It’s still just something different, something else.”

Lopez, of NestQuest in Houston, has her theories: Maybe it all just sounds too good to be true. Maybe NestQuest doesn’t have a track record in the community yet. But as someone who grew up in public housing in a heavily segregated Houston neighborhood, she also wonders if this is proof of what she and many others suspect is the real reason that landlords have not wanted to rent to Section 8 voucher holders all along — the stereotype.

Lott puts it more bluntly: “It’s just discrimination. Discrimination against a population that’s predominantly African-American. If the program was predominantly a different complexion … I don’t know that we would have these kinds of issues with the Section 8 program.”

In a lawsuit filed against Gov. Greg Abbott and the state of Texas over the 2015 law, the Inclusive Communities Project notes that close to 90 percent of families living with vouchers in Houston and Dallas are black.

Mintz, of the Texas Apartment Association, strongly disagrees that discrimination is at the root of landlords’ fears. Though apartment associations are supportive of programs like NestQuest, even with all the bureaucracy taken away, “You still have this basic idea of somebody having to contract with a federal program,” he said. “Some people are going to choose not to do that no matter what happens with the program.”

Denise Taylor at her new apartment in Houston on Nov. 16, 2018.
Denise Taylor at her new apartment in Houston on Nov. 16, 2018.
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

The move

Denise Taylor has no doubts about why it’s been so hard to persuade landlords and property owners to accept Section 8 vouchers.

“A voucher means you’re not trustworthy,” she says. “That’s the kind of category they put you in. You don’t work. You don’t care. Well, I’m not that person.”

Still, as her housing search dragged into July, she began to worry that she’d have to give her voucher back to the housing authority. And though she’d had high hopes for getting Kristina into a safe neighborhood with a good school, hearing more than 100 rejections had worn her down. She decided to make do with what she could.

“I said, ‘You know what Lord, until you get me where I need to be, I’m gonna humble myself and go into an apartment,’” she said.

Denise Taylor with her daughter Kristina McCullough, 14, in their new apartment in Houston on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018.
Denise Taylor with her daughter Kristina McCullough, 14, in their new apartment in Houston on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018.
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

She and Kristina ended up moving into an apartment on Greens Road, in a North Houston neighborhood that, just a few months before, she’d explicitly said she wanted to avoid. Eighty-five percent of the people in her new census tract are black or Hispanic, and more than 20 percent live below the poverty line. The high school Kristina goes to now got a recent D rating from a children’s advocacy group; last year it got an F.

Taylor said the apartments, located near the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, reminded her of what she’d hoped to escape when she moved her daughter to Houston.

“They really almost look like the projects from Chicago, because it ain’t nothing but a group of people on a fixed income living all in one area, gated in,” she said.

Meanwhile, the entire federal Section 8 program she’s depending on to find a better place to live is undergoing sweeping changes spearheaded by President Donald Trump’s administration.

Trump’s appointee to head the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, has said he wants to reduce reliance on the federal housing program and has proposed tripling voucher-holders’ minimum monthly rent payments. He has rolled back the Obama-era rules requiring local governments to prioritize desegregation in their housing policies and has delayed a federal program that would increase voucher payments to help tenants move to high-opportunity neighborhoods.

“It’s clear from a budget perspective and a human point of view that the current system is unsustainable,” Carson told reporters in April.

The Obama administration had been in charge when HUD found that the decision to kill the Fountain View project in Houston was motivated partly by “racial animus.” But after President Trump took office, the issue was mostly tabled. A few months ago, Houston city officials signed an agreement with HUD that appears to absolve the city of any accusation of racial discrimination or noncompliance with the law.

Still, the document does nod to the problem of voucher discrimination, saying: “HUD and the City recognize that landlords’ reluctance to rent to voucher holders may pose a barrier to mobility for voucher holders in the City.” It praises Houston’s NestQuest program and says that the city will continue to pursue it.

That’s small comfort to Taylor, given that not even two dozen families have been able to take advantage of the program so far. But Hunt, the Houston apartment executive whose company rents to a handful of families through NestQuest, said Taylor shouldn’t give up.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said. “We’re trying. The industry is trying.”

Annie Daniel contributed reporting.


Source: Texas Tribune Education

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