A housing development that accepts Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers. 
Photo provided by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
A housing development that accepts Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers. Photo provided by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Sharon Norwood received a federal voucher to help pay for rent after she was evicted in 2020 from her home of 11 years.

She wanted to use the financial assistance to live in Evergreen Park, a Chicago suburb with good schools and safe streets for the six children she was raising.

The problem was no landlords in the neighborhood wanted her or her voucher.

“I’ve been dealing with a whole lot as a Black mother living here,” said Norwood, who today works as the housing justice organizer with the Chicago-Area Fair Housing Alliance.

“They pretty much let you know that they really don’t want you here. But I’m not going anywhere.”

Norwood and her family did eventually find a place to stay in Evergreen Park, but only after she gave up her voucher and paid more money out of pocket to afford the rent.

For decades, residents like Norwood have faced landlords who deny them housing simply because the rent comes from the Housing Choice Voucher Program Section 8.

But in January, apartment listings and landlords proclaiming voucher holders need not apply became illegal after a law banning income discrimination took effect.

The legislation added source of income as a protected class in the Illinois Human Rights Act, along with race, disability, familial status, sexual orientation and other factors, providing legal protection to those with non-wage incomes such as vouchers.

When the bill was signed last year, Illinois became the 20th state to have such a law on the books.

Over the decades, discrimination against voucher holders had become widespread in local housing markets throughout the state, according to Foluke Akanni, a policy organizer for Housing Action Illinois, a nonprofit that advocates more affordable housing.

In Dekalb, a city of 40,200 about 60 miles west of downtown Chicago, about 25% of 175 people surveyed in 2019 said they experienced housing discrimination based on income, as well as race and age.

But in rural parts of Illinois, housing officials say, voucher holders don’t face much pushback from landlords.

Brett Koehler, executive director of the Shelby County Housing Authority, said residents who receive assistance through his agency don’t report facing discrimination, and nearly all of them end up finding an apartment or home to rent.

“I have not run into the issue,” he said. “I'm assuming there are other agencies that have run into the issue, but as far as rural Illinois goes, it’s not a problem.”

One reason landlords are more open toward Section 8 voucher holders, Koehler explained, is because the program isn't widely used in Shelby County, located in south central Illinois with a population of 21,000.

Just 69 residents are on Section 8 assistance. The program has enough funding for 112. That means there’s usually ample rental units available for potential tenants. The average time it took someone with a voucher to find housing so far this year was 28 days, Koehler noted.

But that’s not the case in larger metro areas like Chicago and Rockford, where residents sometimes wait decades to receive a voucher and where income and race play a major role in who landlords accept as renters, according to Bob Palmer, policy director at Housing Action Illinois.

“For households of color, particularly Black households that have vouchers, it's very challenging to find property owners who are willing to rent to them outside communities that are high poverty and racially segregated,” he said.

The ban on income discrimination could help solve that problem, but it will likely take years for voucher holders to feel the effects, according to a study published in October by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization.

Between the fourth and eighth year after protections take effect, the share of voucher-assisted households with children moving into low-poverty neighborhoods increases by about 3%, the study found. That improvement applies mostly to Black families who move into neighborhoods with mostly white residents.

“Source of income protections appear to spur a measurable increase in access to low-poverty neighborhoods for families with vouchers,” the study noted. “But we find that effects are delayed, and we do not find a direct link between law strength and the size of a law’s impact.”

Even with the new protections in place, it won’t guarantee landlords stop denying a person housing because they pay with a voucher, Palmer noted. Property owners can still vet those applying for a rental unit and pick a tenant who doesn’t have a voucher based on other criteria.

In the long run, though, research shows the policy will open up more housing opportunities to tenants using financial assistance by banning blanket denial of those using a voucher.

For those struggling to find a landlord willing to take a voucher, having even just one more option available could mean the difference between housing and homelessness, Palmer said.

“For those individual families who do have greater housing opportunities, it makes a huge, positive difference in their life by just requiring that they be treated fairly,” he said.

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