Now is the time to protect rent fairness in Michigan

“Your money’s no good here.”

You’ve probably heard this sentence if you’ve ever tried to repay a friend for picking up the check at a restaurant or lending a helping hand when you needed it. It’s usually said with affection, connection, or empathy.

But, for thousands of families that use housing vouchers or other non-wage sources of income to pay their rent, it has an entirely different meaning.

Tenants whom our economy has left behind rely on those income sources to meet their survival needs, but many landlords won’t accept them.

April is Fair Housing Month, giving us a great opportunity to raise awareness of the crucial role programs like the Housing Choice Voucher program play in ensuring quality housing for thousands of Michigan families, as well as legislation that could make them even more effective.

Under the HCV program, income-qualifying households receive a voucher from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that they can use to rent a home in the privately owned rental market. Generally, the family’s expected contribution is set at 30% of their income and the voucher pays the remainder of the rent directly to landlords.

Vouchers have many proven benefits for families: reduced crowding, homelessness, and hunger, healthier homes with less exposure to lead and other hazards, and improved school attendance.

In the long run, children in families with low incomes that use vouchers earn substantially more as adults.

Currently, however, there are enough vouchers for only one out of every four income-eligible households. The average wait time for an HCV in Michigan is more than two years, and the few families that are lucky enough to receive one have a hard time finding a landlord who will accept it.

That discrimination based on source of income has the greatest impact on households against whom it would otherwise be illegal to discriminate: families of color and those that include disabled people, older adults, or children.

Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to protect Michigan renters from discrimination based on their source of income and several communities have already enacted local ordinances to that effect. Our state Legislature should follow suit to protect renters’ civil rights throughout the state, no matter where they live.

You can join us in supporting those bills as part of a statewide alliance led by the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness.

Over the last 40 years, the federal government has reduced overall investment in rental assistance and outsourced responsibility for providing assisted housing to the private sector. Those trends are driving a continuing decline in the number of assisted units. The nation is losing 10,000 government-owned and -operated public housing units every year, and voluntary landlord HCV participation means many of them aren’t replaced by the private sector.

From 2000 to 2017, “low-cost” homes fell from 37% to 25% of the national rental stock — a reflection of the fact that the United States loses two affordable apartments every year for each one created.

Today, only 5% of Michigan housing units are connected to any kind of federal rental assistance, and they are concentrated in areas of environmental contamination and vulnerability to natural disasters.

Additionally, voucher holders are underrepresented in the lowest poverty census tracts and overrepresented in high-poverty and otherwise distressed neighborhoods. Within the population of families that use vouchers, that segregating effect has the greatest impact on Black and Hispanic households, perpetuating racial health disparities and economic inequity.

Statewide source-of-income protections would both increase the number of affordable homes available to struggling renters, and ensure that they were more equitably located, providing better access to healthy, opportunity-rich neighborhoods.

Everyone needs a safe home with access to jobs, schools, transportation, health care, recreation, and social opportunities.

As the nation’s largest source of rental assistance, the HCV program aims to achieve that.

But it will always fall short of its goals if people can’t find homes where they can actually use their vouchers.

Let’s protect renters’ rights and ensure that families using the Housing Choice Voucher program and other non-wage forms of income actually have a meaningful choice to live in homes and neighborhoods where they can thrive.

Julie Cassidy is senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy.


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