American metropolitan areas continue to show high levels of residential segregation by race, ethnicity, and social class, and the St. Louis metro area is no exception. The Section 8 housing voucher program is one possible vehicle for challenging this pattern of segregation, by providing low-income individuals and families with financial support to broaden their housing options.
With more than two million households receiving assistance, the Section 8 voucher program is the largest housing subsidy for low-income Americans. Unlike other housing subsidies, Section 8 vouchers are typically tied to the renter, not to a specific housing unit. Renters receiving a voucher can shop for housing in the private rental market rather than being assigned to a specific apartment. Those who use a voucher typically pay 30 percent of their income toward their rent and the voucher makes up the difference.
Our recent research has shown that Section 8 renters are more likely to live in low-income communities – and to be excluded from relatively white communities – compared to unsubsidized low-income households. In the St. Louis region, this means that vouchers are used disproportionately in North City and North County. Many Section 8 renters are happy and proud to live in these areas of the St. Louis region, but many would prefer to live elsewhere. The Section 8 program must be improved to achieve its goals of reducing segregation and increasing real housing choice for low-income families.
Earlier this year, St. Louis city passed two important laws to improve the Section 8 program. One law repealed special inspections for landlords renting through the Section 8 program. Without these added inspections, it is now easier for landlords to participate in the program, which will hopefully increase the number of landlords accepting Section 8 vouchers and thereby increase the housing choices of voucher recipients.
The second law clarified our local fair housing law to provide explicit protections for Section 8 renters. It is now unlawful for a landlord in St. Louis to have a “No Section 8” policy. This law only applies in the city (for now), but it applies regardless of whether the renter received their voucher from the St. Louis Housing Authority or the Housing Authority of St. Louis County.
Provided that the cost of rent falls under the Fair Market Rent level that the program will cover, landlords in the City of St. Louis must now proceed with prospective Section 8 renters in the same way they proceed with any other prospective renter. Likewise, once a voucher recipient moves in, the landlord must treat that tenant the same as any other tenant.
St. Louis’s new fair housing law provides Section 8 renters with legal recourse in the event that discrimination occurs, including Section 8 renters who are put out of their home because their landlord wishes to terminate his or her participation with the program.
Now that St. Louis City has led the way with these important fair housing protections, the next step is to pass them in St. Louis County and the state of Missouri. Full protection against housing discrimination should extend to all Missourians.
If you believe you have been discriminated against in housing based on your voucher or any other protected category (race, color, national origin, familial status, disability, sex, religion, source of income, sexual orientation, or gender identity), the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council (EHOC) can help. EHOC seeks to ensure equal access to housing and places of public accommodation for all people through education, counseling, investigation, and enforcement.
To reach EHOC, you can call 1-800-555-3951 or 314-534-5800, file a complaint at EHOCSTL.org, or mail in forms to EHOC, 1027 S. Vandeventer Ave. (6th floor), St. Louis, MO 63110.
Molly Metzger is an assistant professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University and a board member at EHOC. Andrew Brown is a recent graduate of the Brown School.