Since January 2021, it has been illegal for landlords in Colorado to treat anyone applying for housing differently based on their source of income.
Yet those who work in fair housing advocacy say the problem persists statewide. They say people who try to use publicly funded vouchers to pay for housing run into outright and more subtle forms of discrimination, which makes it hard for families to transition out of homelessness.
The Denver Metro Fair Housing Center's John Paul Marosy and Wheat Ridge resident Shelli Fransen spoke with Colorado Matters host Chandra Thomas Whitfield about the problem and what can be done about it.
This transcript of their interview has been edited for clarity.
Chandra Thomas Whitfield: What does it mean for a landlord to discriminate against someone based on their source of income?
John Paul Marosy: The most common form of discrimination is against people who are trying to use housing vouchers under Section 8, or state programs. Sometimes they've waited 18 months or two years to get a voucher, and then the discrimination happens.
The forms that it takes are: landlords who refuse to accept the housing voucher; or refuse to count the value of the voucher toward the income-to-rent ratio that the landlord requires — say, three-to-one or sometimes four-to-one income to rent; or something called "steering." We had an instance of a lady who got a housing voucher after several years of waiting, who was told on the phone that the apartment complex accepted the housing voucher and she should come down and apply. When she got there and applied, they said, "We do accept housing vouchers, but not in this building. Most of our housing voucher holders are more comfortable living in this building on the other side of town." So that's a classic example of steering. And this is the same kind of pattern of discrimination that we've seen in racial discrimination and discrimination against a person with disabilities under fair housing laws for many years.
Whitfield: Your team at the Denver Metro Housing Center has said that this disproportionately impacts the unhoused and those with disabilities. How so?
Marosy: Denver Metro Fair Housing Center has found that 80 percent of all the housing voucher holders in Colorado live in households with at least one person with a disability. And also, in the Denver area in particular, we know that a high proportion — four out of five housing voucher holders — are Black, Latino, or Native American.
The saddest part of all is that this is an unnecessary barrier that people transitioning out of homelessness are facing. Just imagine you're out on the street, you waited, you finally get your housing voucher, now you're in the housing market, and the door is closed in your face by a landlord who is unlawfully refusing to accept your housing voucher. That's why we're doing the statewide campaign to end unlawful discrimination against housing voucher holders.
Whitfield: Shelli, what did you face when you tried to get housing?
Shelli Fransen: I won the Section 8 lottery, and so I thought that I should be good to go to find housing. But then I found that places weren't necessarily accepting of it. I don't know if it was about the time that they enacted the new law, but people would say, 'No, we don't accept Section 8,' or 'We're not set up to accept Section 8.'
After the law, I found that they got creative with it and they would say that you have to make three to three-and-a-half times the amount of rent for your income. That was one way I found they were getting around it. I was going to places and they were telling me that I couldn't rent there because my voucher didn't cover the whole rent. I thought I could pay, with my income, the rest of the rent. And they're like, 'No, you can't do that.'
Whitfield: Prior to being entered into the Section 8 lottery, you and your girls experienced homelessness, living in different shelters and with friends. How did it feel to actually receive a Section 8 voucher, and then feel like when you tried to present it to potential landlords, they were not very open to considering you as a tenant?
Fransen: It felt almost more like a barrier than a blessing. I was so excited to have this Section 8 voucher, and I didn't understand why landlords wouldn't accept it, because it's guaranteed rent. They're guaranteed to get this money each month. So I thought I could go anywhere with it. Finding out that there were landlords that didn't want to accept it, and there were stereotypes as to Section 8 recipients, that was really deflating.
Whitfield: John Paul, what should someone do if they feel they've been discriminated against based on their source of income?
Marosy: What a person should do if they're feeling discriminated against is pick up the phone, call the Denver Metro Fair Housing Center at 720-279-4291 or go to the website of the Colorado Civil Rights Division, ccrd.colorado.gov, and file a complaint.
Landlords need to know and respect the law. We are here to partner with landlords so that this process can be smooth. We're here to educate landlords, we're here to educate tenants, too. We would like to do forums in every part of the state. We have dates set for one in the southern part of Colorado. We have a date for one in northern Colorado. We want to come to every part of the state, from Grand Junction, to Salida, to Kiowa County, because this affects 29,000 Coloradans, and each of us are not that far away from this. National studies show that 56% of Americans cannot cover a $1,000 emergency financial crisis. So this is not something that affects someone else. It could affect you and me.
Whitfield: Several of the landlords that I spoke to said they are concerned about a delay in payment with Section 8 in particular, but maybe also with other programs. Is there any support to speed up the process?
Marosy: I can't speak for every processor of housing vouchers around the state, but I know that the biggest one in the state, the Denver Housing Authority, is working very hard to speed up that initial payment process.
There's a study done by Rocket Mortgage, and they find that Section 8 is an important market that has much to offer participating landlords. It guarantees payments for 70 percent of fair market rent, generous annual rent hikes, low vacancy rates, and good profit margins. So I think that's enough said from the business side.
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