Preventing Discrimination or Burdensome Regulation? City, Landlords Going to Court Over Section 8 Law

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 

It took Janetta Harrison months of searching before she found a landlord in Pittsburgh’s North Side who would accept her Housing Choice Voucher, commonly called a Section 8 voucher.

Many online apartment listings explicitly stated “No Section 8.” Other times, even if the ad said the landlord would accept vouchers, she would call and be told, “No Section 8,” she said.

During that time, she and her young daughter have continued to live in an apartment with a mold problem, pending a planned move next month.

It’s a common scenario for families with vouchers who are trying to find affordable places to live, said Monique McCain, a family development specialist with Providence Connections in Marshall-Shadeland. Ms. McCain assisted Ms. Harrison in her housing search, and often aids other families with housing issues as part of her job.

“The demand is high, but the supply is very, very low. It is very difficult to get a landlord to accept Section 8,” said Ms. McCain.

A case before Commonwealth Court this week could eventually determine if landlords in Pittsburgh would have to accept vouchers such as Ms. Harrison’s.

People using a voucher pay a portion of their income in rent to a private landlord, and a federal subsidy pays the rest. Participation for landlords is voluntary, and many don’t take vouchers.

Judges will hear arguments over a 2015 Pittsburgh law that forbids landlords from discriminating against potential tenants based on “source of income” — such as a voucher. The Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh brought litigation shortly after the ordinance was passed. The association represents property owners and managers of more than 30,000 residential rental units in the city.

An Allegheny County Common Pleas judge ruled against the city last year. Judge Joseph James said the law violated the city’s home rule charter because it would demand that businesses take on specific duties, which would violate state law.

The city appealed the ruling to Commonwealth Court, where the two sides will argue this week. City officials declined to discuss the case, and the Apartment Association did not respond to inquiries.

Voucher discrimination is a problem, attorneys for the city argued in briefs submitted to the court. This discrimination limits where voucher-holders can live. A 2017 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis also found many voucher-holders are concentrated in certain neighborhoods, notably East Liberty, Carrick, Sheraden, Esplen, Knoxville, Crawford-Roberts and the Middle Hill.

“[V]oucher-holders are mainly limited to housing choices located in high-poverty, majority-minority neighborhoods,” city attorneys wrote, and voucher discrimination is “an unacceptable proxy for discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, and familial status.”

There are more than 5,300 households using a voucher in the city, according to the city housing authority.

Pittsburgh attorneys point to a case involving an ordinance in Allentown, Pa., forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and say their ordinance “is intended to protect Pittsburgh’s citizens from discrimination,” rather than to impose duties on businesses.

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