‘It shouldn’t be this hard’: Council committee explores pervasive form of housing discrimination in Philadelphia

It’s called source of income discrimination. City law makes it illegal, but it’s incredibly common.

Rowhouses in Center City.

Typical rowhouses in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Delores Bell is beyond frustrated.

She desperately wants to move to Germantown to be closer to her aging parents but hasn’t been able to find an apartment she can afford or a landlord willing to take her on as a tenant.

And she says she knows exactly why: She’s a housing choice voucher holder.

“My apartment is in good condition. I’ve always made my rent. But I don’t even have the chance to prove that I’m a good tenant when landlords flat out refuse to accept voucher holders,” said Bell, a member of Renters United Philadelphia.

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“It shouldn’t be this hard,” she added.

Bell’s remarks came near the top of a three-hour hearing on Monday, convened by a City Council committee to explore a pervasive form of housing discrimination in Philadelphia.

It’s called source of income discrimination. City law makes it illegal, but it’s incredibly common. Residents like Bell are often the victims, spurring some of Council’s fiercest housing advocates to seek possible solutions amid an affordable housing crisis.

“I fully understand that changes might need to be made to this program to ensure that it works better for property owners. But let me be clear: Philadelphia will no longer stand for the rampant illegal discrimination against working class Black and brown families with housing vouchers,” said Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who chairs Council’s Committee on Public Housing, Neighborhood Development, and the Homeless.

Source of income discrimination is illegal under the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, a law that’s been on the books for more than 40 years. But housing advocates say many tenants don’t know about the measure, or that they can lodge a complaint against a landlord who violates it. This  results in a situation where the practice is not only expected, but accepted by voucher holders, who need the rent subsidy to keep a roof over their heads.

A 2018 study from the Urban Institute found that 67% of landlords in Philadelphia refuse to accept vouchers. The rejection rate rises to 83% in low-poverty neighborhoods.

Housing attorneys and city officials told councilmembers on Monday there needs to be better education around the law. They said Philadelphia could also do a better job of enforcing it.

“One of the biggest problems is right now, with our existing infrastructure, we have more of a reactive enforcement scope. We rely on the complaints that come in. But frankly, the number of complaints that we receive are not matching the magnitude of the crisis that’s being described here today,” said Kim Ghee, executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

Ghee’s office is responsible for investigating allegations of housing and property discrimination, including source of income discrimination. She said she’d love to have more investigators to tackle more complaints. Right now, there are a total of six investigators who field source of income complaints, but also complaints related to employment discrimination and public accommodations discrimination, among other areas.

More funding would also enable the commission to be more proactive with investigations, she said. For example, the commission could deploy “testers” — people posing as potential tenants — to drive complaints against problem landlords, instead of relying on voucher holders to come forward.

“If we had more resources, we could do more targeted outreach,” said Ghee.

A spokesperson for the city did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program is operated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered locally by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

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There are approximately 19,500 voucher households in the city. The majority — more than 80% — of them are Black families and individuals, according to federal data. And most earn less than $20,000 a year, an amount below the federal poverty line.

PHA continues to incentivize landlords to join the program, but there are still not enough units to match the need, which recently came into focus when the agency reopened its waiting list for vouchers for the first time in a dozen years.

Source of income discrimination makes the housing search for voucher holders all the more difficult, said Sari Bernstein, a staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Center.

“Despite their subsidy, these Philadelphians are actually locked out of the rental market in large swaths of the city,” said Bernstein during the hearing.

When it was his turn to address the Council committee, PHA president Kelvin Jeremiah focused on the agency’s efforts to lure more landlords to its voucher program, as well as its efforts to help voucher holders, including those displaced by the forthcoming sale of the University City Townhomes.  

Jeremiah also said some landlords use a prospective tenant’s credit score or criminal record as a “guise” for rejecting their application, calling source of income discrimination “disheartening.”

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