Property managers in middle-class Shelby County neighborhoods frequently discriminate against potential tenants with Section 8 vouchers — especially if they’re Black — according to a major new report.
The report documented three years of research in Memphis by the National Fair Housing Alliance and the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, in which people pretending to hold vouchers attempted to lease apartments in neighborhoods with poverty rates below 15%. More than 80% of the time, researchers found, the managers discriminated against Memphians with these vouchers — also known as Housing Choice Vouchers — which are the primary way the federal government pays rent for people living in poverty.
“Discrimination against folks (with vouchers) is really rampant,” NFHA CEO Lisa Rice said in a Tuesday webinar about the report. “This level of discrimination really cannot be allowed to continue. … It leads to housing instability and homelessness. It contributes to poor education and health outcomes for children.”
Of the property managers surveyed between 2019 and 2021, more than 20% told the would-be tenants they don’t accept vouchers; others said they didn’t have any voucher spots left, had high minimum income requirements or that the tenants should try cheaper properties they manage. None of these forms of discrimination are illegal in Tennessee, but they leave Shelby County’s more than 8,300 voucher households segregated in high-poverty neighborhoods.
White testers received better treatment than Black ones almost 40% of the time. The property managers spent more time with these white people during site visits, coached them on navigating the rental process, gave them additional contact information and encouraged them to follow up.
“During one test, the Black tester was told that units would not be available until two weeks after her desired move-in date, but the White tester was given information about units that were available during her move-in time frame, which was the same time the Black tester had requested,” the report says.
The report, titled “Bad Housing Blues: Discrimination in the Housing Choice Voucher Program in Memphis, TN,” focused on apartment complexes in low-poverty, high-opportunity neighborhoods because of the decades of research showing the health and income benefits of living in such neighborhoods.
For instance, data from the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality shows census tracts throughout South Memphis, Whitehaven and Frayser — places where many voucher holders live — rank in the 90th to 99th percentiles for people with asthma and diabetes.
And when low-income families move from neighborhoods with a lot of poverty into neighborhoods with almost none, the mental and physical health of women dramatically improves, according to the Moving to Opportunity study, a 1990s national experiment conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Women experienced less obesity, diabetes, anxiety and depression. Their daughters faced fewer panic attacks, psychological distress and multiple mood disorders.
Apartment managers refusing to rent to voucher holders is especially harmful in Shelby County because Tennessee housing policy concentrates subsidized affordable housing in segregated, low-opportunity neighborhoods.
“If we look at our (Tennessee Housing Development Agency policy) from year to year, it still discriminates on us building housing … in high-opportunity areas,” Roshun Austin, a local affordable housing developer and CEO of The Works Inc., said during the webinar.
Along with state policy, Austin said she and other nonprofit housing developers are effectively barred from low-poverty areas because of restrictive zoning and neighbors who organize against it.
On the webinar, both Austin and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro encouraged listeners to advocate for zoning changes that allow apartments to be built in these neighborhoods.
“Ask candidates who come running for city council about their stance on these issues because they rarely get questions on this stuff,” Castro said.
When apartment managers in high-opportunity neighborhoods refuse to accept voucher holders, and state law stymies developers’ attempts to build affordable housing in those areas, low-income Memphians are effectively barred from living in better neighborhoods.
“The entire system is still — too often — stacked against these vulnerable individuals and families,” said Castro.
Austin also brought up the lack of affordable apartments throughout Shelby County — even in high-poverty areas. Based on the number of low-income residents, Memphis has about 36,000 fewer affordable housing units than it needs, according to a 2022 analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. And since 2019, the region’s proportion of vacant rentals has crashed from above 10% to about 6%.
“We never have an available unit,” she said.
The report highlighted a couple ways the Tennessee General Assembly and the Memphis Housing Authority could improve conditions for voucher holders.
MHA could join dozens of housing authorities across the country in varying the value of its vouchers based on ZIP code. This would make vouchers more valuable to landlords in low-poverty ZIPs.
Tennessee could follow the model set by other cities and states and effectively prohibit discrimination by forcing apartment complexes to accept vouchers. The best way to do this, the report says, would be for the General Assembly to amend the state’s Human Rights Act to include voucher holders as a class of people protected from discrimination.
“These laws are important,” the report says. “Several HUD studies have found that voucher holders are more likely to find suitable housing that will accept their vouchers in jurisdictions with (these) laws.”
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
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