New Pittsburgh ordinance bars discrimination against Section 8 renters

     Pittsburgh joins Philadelphia (pictured) and State College in adding ‘source of income’ to the list of protected classes under fair housing laws (Jessica Kourkounis/for Keystone Crossroads)

    Pittsburgh joins Philadelphia (pictured) and State College in adding ‘source of income’ to the list of protected classes under fair housing laws (Jessica Kourkounis/for Keystone Crossroads)

    Pittsburgh joins Philadelphia and State College in adding ‘source of income’ to the list of protected classes under fair housing laws.

    Pittsburgh City Council has passed a bill that adds source of income to the list of protected classes under fair housing laws. The ordinance prohibits landlords from turning away potential tenants based on their participation in the Housing Choice Voucher program — which helps low-income families and individuals pay rent in the private housing sector — all other things being equal.

    The program, also known as Section 8, serves 5,200 families in the city.

    Councilman Ricky Burgess, who sponsored the bill as part of a legislative package aimed at addressing inequities in the Steel City, said landlords “use the Section 8 voucher as a scarlet letter.” He added that rejecting tenants based on their source of income is “really just a vehicle for other types of discrimination,” like racial bias.

    Pittsburgh is the third municipality in the Commonwealth to include source-of-income in its housing discrimination legislation, after Philadelphia and State College.

    Anti-discrimination legislation like this can be hard to enforce. If a person feels like a landlord discriminated against him, he can file a complaint with the Commission on Human Relations, which then investigates the claim.

    Stacy Pethia, the Landlord Outreach Coordinator for the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, speaking before the bill passed, said the main change would be that landlords could no longer place rental ads that say “no Section 8.” She said that “would maybe open the door to people…doors that our participants don’t normally access,” and allow Section 8 participants to at least get applications in, which could result in housing for some.

    While some research shows that protecting people based on source of income can have moderately positive outcomes, advocates say such laws work better when enforcing agencies have teeth and landlords are aware they’re being diligently watched. In Philadelphia — which has included source of income protections in its fair housing laws since 1980 — rental ads on sites like Craigslist regularly include language like “No Section 8,” though that’s illegal.  

    But Burgess said the bill is symbolic, too: “It will open up a larger discussion about how we protect and how we incentivize success and create opportunities for people who may be in low-income situations,” he said.

    Meanwhile, there are softer efforts underway to convince landlords to work with more Section 8 voucher holders. For example, Pethia leads outreach and education programs geared towards landlords who are on the fence about renting to Section 8 tenants. “A lot of the voucher holders, they just have a bad image associated with them,” she said, something that’s not based in fact.  

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