What good is housing help if you can’t spend it anywhere? Denver leader wants to ban “income discrimination.”

Even when they win the lottery, Denver renters can’t find anywhere to spend their benefits.
6 min. read
Jerry Burton outside the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Kevin J. Beaty

This September, tens of thousands of people will visit the Denver Housing Authority's website and enter a lottery, hoping to win a housing voucher to pay some of their rent.

Only a few hundred will succeed -- and that's only the first step in a long, complicated process. Each year, renters sacrifice their valuable vouchers because they can't find a landlord who will accept rent payments from Section 8 and other housing assistance programs.

Now, a Denver City Council member is proposing an amendment that would force landlords to open their doors to more people.

Take Jerry Burton, a military veteran who experienced homelessness: He said that an "affordable" building rejected him even though he had a military housing benefit that covered the full cost.

"I stayed outside for another eight to 10 months," he said, until he found a building owned by a fellow veteran. He suspects he was rejected because of a combination of his housing voucher and his credit history.

“We have to come up with some kind of solution, so we can house everyone, because everyone deserves a house," he said.

Here's how the new law works.

Councilwoman At-large Robin Kniech's new bill, introduced today, would require Denver landlords to accept all forms of payment, including vouchers, ending what she describes as a form of discrimination. It would not apply to owner-occupied duplexes and single-family homes, but it would apply to for-rent houses.

"This policy is about someone who can afford an apartment  …. but, 'I'm turned away because of how I’m paying,'" Kniech said at a city meeting on Thursday. "This is about stopping discrimination."

Right now, landlords in Denver have little obligation to accept vouchers and other benefits. But more than a dozen states and cities including Washington, D.C. and dozens of cities have passed laws that prohibit discrimination based on a person's source of housing.

"Many times, their vouchers are not accepted in high opportunity areas with access to transportation, health foods, health care, social dynamics you’d like, jobs, or schools," said Arturo Alvarado, executive director of the Denver Metro Fair Housing Center.

Denver Housing Authority has about 6,900 housing vouchers in circulation, but only a small portion become available in any given year. The vouchers can only be used to pay rents up to a certain "fair market rent" -- about $1,200 for a two-bedroom in Denver, which is relatively low. (The city has launched a separate, similar program that pays higher rents.)

In all, about 10 percent of voucher holders said they faced income discrimination in Denver in a recent survey by BBC Research & Consulting, which was cited by Kniech's office.

"It boils down to one thing: I think the perception of Section 8 scares away our owners, our investors," said Rocky Germano. He works for a company that manages about 350 properties -- and only about four of the owners allow Section 8 vouchers.

"It would be a good thing for owners to accept (vouchers). And that's a tough sales job, the way the market is right now," he added. In other words, low vacancy rates are making landlords more picky -- or more discriminatory.

Under Kniech's proposal, renters would have to file a complaint within one month of the discovery of the incident, after which the landlord would have a month to respond. The city's Human Rights and Community Partnerships agency then would have two months to act.

The possible consequences include:

  • An order to end discriminatory practices
  • An order to make the unit or a similar unit available
  •  A fine of up to $5,000
  • An order to pay damages, such as the cost of motels or additional applications

Both parties will have the right to appeal to court. The program also would come with training and public education, Kniech said.

"The goal here is not to catch people. The goal is to prevent this form of discrimination," Kniech said. And she hopes that the change would help fulfill the original purpose of Section 8 when it was created back in the '70s: to stop the economic segregation of housing.

This conversation is not new to Colorado.

It's been building up for months here in Denver, and Rep. Leslie Herod introduced a similar state law this year.

"The No. 1 opposition I got was from the Apartment Association as well as the Realtors," she said. "They were concerned that there was a certain level of requirements for Section 8 housing that they couldn’t meet."

For landlords, accepting the voucher money comes with a few extra requirements: Their properties are inspected yearlt, and they must hold the unit open while the voucher is processed.

Landlords also worry that they won't be able to recover damages if a tenant damages the property, Burke said. Certain voucher programs include insurance programs to cover landlords' losses -- an idea that Kniech was interested to study.

“We’re hopeful that we can work with city Councilwoman Kniech to alleviate some of the impediments that landlords see, to see if we can’t work something out," said Nancy Burke, a spokesperson for the Apartment Association of Metro Denver. “If we can get to that point, then game on."

Stella Madrid, a representative of Denver Housing Authority, said the organization has worked hard to encourage landlords to accept vouchers.

"Our vouchers are reliable, dependable and they’re meeting an affordable housing need. We’ve also made the process very customer friendly for the landlord," she told Denverite, citing automatic bank deposits and online reporting tools.

The legislation also would cover other housing vouchers, disability benefits, loans, child support and more. Denver landlords already work on discrimination laws that apply in some cases, but the time to file and act on a complaint can stretch past a year, Kniech said.

Simply passing the law won't solve the problem, though, according to Kate Scott, deputy director of The Equal Rights Center in Washington, D.C. Her group periodically tests the market, warns landlords and occasionally files complaints about potential violations in D.C.

And when government enforcement recently lagged, she said, "we started seeing ... lots of ads that were blatantly discriminatory."

In Denver, Kniech's proposed amendment is still in its early stages -- and the discussion at Thursday's meeting revealed plenty more concerns about housing discrimination, including the fact that poor credit keeps many people out of housing. Meanwhile, Kniech and other council members also have launched a program to provide legal services to people facing eviction.

The anti-discrimination bill will return to the council Safehouse committee on July 18, and it would need the approval of the full Denver City Council.

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