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No 8s: Is not accepting voucher holders discrimination or avoiding red tape headaches?
Dan Vollman grew up on Chicago's West Side, raised by a single mom who had trouble paying the rent on time.
Now a landlord himself, he was more than willing to participate in the Section 8 program - the government subsidized program that allows low-income families to rent in the private market at rates they can afford.
"Back in the day, in the 50s and 60s, a divorced woman was ostracized. It was difficult for us to rent," said Vollman. "I would have thought a subsidy would have helped my mother. She could have gone to school and learned some things to help her get a better job. As it was, she had barely enough time to work to pay the bills."
Vollman's been renting to tenants in the voucher program, often referred to as Section 8, for about 30 years in his buildings in Chicago and suburban Cook County. In Oak Park alone, he owns 159 units and about 40 are filled by Section 8 tenants.
"I have a lot of great Section 8 tenants that have become good friends," Vollman said.
Suburban Cook County is the target of an amendment before the county board that would make it illegal to deny a person the opportunity to rent because their source of income is a Section 8 voucher.
Too Many Bureaucratic Hoops?
While landlords and realtors have complained the program creates hassles for them that cause them to lose money, housing authority officials in Cook County said that's simply not true. Rich Monocchio, head of the Housing Authority of Cook County, said the perception that the program doesn't run well is out of date. While apartments have to be inspected before a tenant can sign a lease and the first month’s rent is paid, that process doesn't take weeks or months anymore.
"I will admit that the inspection process was onerous at one time," said Monocchio. "I wouldn't want to wait for my rent for two or three months either while some bureaucracy got its paper work together, but that just isn't the case anymore."
Monocchio said since he's come on board at the housing authority, he has made many changes to ensure the program runs more efficiently. For example, he’s pushed to reduce inspection times to a matter of days and move records online so that landlords can see their results and show improvements they've made.
Ed Solan, head of the Oak Park Housing Authority, agreed that the program is well-run and easy to use.
These days landlords get their rent payments through direct deposit, Solan said, so they never get late payments. Solan added that if the program was difficult to deal with, he wouldn't have over 200 landlords in Oak Park participating.
"Those owners who are participating with us probably have fewer hassles collecting rent than they do with their private tenants," said Solan. "In many respects, our voucher tenants are more reliable in terms of rent-paying ability, and also I think that there's lower turnover."
But those facts haven't changed everyone's minds.
An Unpopular Amendment
"There's a very vociferous opposition to this that's really not based on the facts," said Monocchio. "If you don't like the ordinance, say so, but don't hide behind falsehoods and things that aren't true anymore. I think some folks that are opposing this are using the supposed dysfunction of the system as cover."
Cover for what? Housing advocates say landlords can use the fact that it's legal to turn away voucher holders to hide real discrimination based on race, familial status or gender.
Because families with vouchers are primarily black, many of them single moms, landlords in affluent areas don’t want to rent to them, said Rob Breymaier, president of the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance, which is behind the amendment.
"In many communities, because of the stereotypes that are out there about what a voucher holder is like or who they are, there is just a reluctance to take part in the program or refusal to take part in the program," said Breymaier. "We know based on where folks live that it's happening more often in whiter and more affluent communities than it is in other places."
And that reluctance has real consequences for people with vouchers, said Breymaier.
"The bulk of kinds of jobs many voucher holders might be able to get --entry level jobs, service jobs-- are in Northern Cook County, but most voucher holders live in Western and Southern Cook." said Breymaier. "The fact that there's this huge disparity between these communities makes it difficult for people to improve their life situation because they're segregated away from opportunity."
Breymaier points out that the Human Rights Ordinance already covers other sources of income and prevents landlords from turning someone away because they're on disability or unemployment. This amendment would just add housing vouchers to that list.
Limited Living Options
Both Solan and Monocchio said their tenants have a hard time finding places to live, especially in nicer neighborhoods, often searching for several months before finding a landlord who will take them.
But landlord Dan Vollman said even though he likes and supports the program, he understands why some landlords are reluctant to take on voucher tenants.
"It's more labor intensive. I think that turns off a lot of the other owners," said Vollman. "If you were an owner and you had a choice - to decide whether you wanted to accept what they tell you to do, you might not. There's different dynamics there."
Vollman said the program works for him, but it might be more difficult for smaller landlords. He said many of his voucher tenants are on disability or are retired, so they don't leave for work and tend to use more utilities. He also has a crew on call 24 hours a day, making it possible for him to comply quickly and easily with building maintenance. He has had problems with some of his tenants, but he says private tenants create problems too.
But overall, he's glad the program exists, not just for him as a property owner, but for the good of society.
"Just because you're poor and you only make X amount of dollars,” said Vollman, ”that doesn't mean they should have to live in the ghetto or a place where they're going to get hit over the head."