Some Georgians with housing vouchers say landlords won’t rent to them

More than 1,000 Georgians have received housing vouchers, but can’t find a landlord who will accept their application
The Atlanta City Council approved an ordinance by a vote of 13-2 on Monday, to ban landlords from rejecting vouchers as payment for affordable housing units. The photo shows a box of applications for housing vouchers. John Spink

The Atlanta City Council approved an ordinance by a vote of 13-2 on Monday, to ban landlords from rejecting vouchers as payment for affordable housing units. The photo shows a box of applications for housing vouchers. John Spink

In the past year, Alviniece Elder has applied to more than 10 apartments in Atlanta. She has enough money to cover rent at a good, stable apartment for herself and her two children. But none of her applications has been approved.

The problem? She has a housing voucher from the government.

“People with vouchers, they can’t move like they want to, because [landlords] won’t take them. They say it’s not good enough,” said Elder, 33. “A lot of this is not OK, but what can I do?”

Elder is one of more than 1,000 people in Georgia right now who have been approved for a housing voucher, but cannot find a place to accept it. That’s on top of thousands more applicants who are hoping to qualify for vouchers. The figures came to light during a Senate study committee examining homelessness earlier this month, and in response to inquiries from The Atlanta Journal Constitution to various state departments.

“This is a widespread problem,” Mariel Risner Sivley, executive director for the non-profit membership network the Georgia Supportive Housing Association, said in an interview. “These are the lucky folks who have the vouchers, and we’re having difficulty placing them.”

Georgia residents whose income is low enough and those who are elderly or disabled may qualify for rental assistance through several programs run by the state and federal government. The programs subsidize part of their rent, otherwise known as a voucher. The renters then shop for an apartment they can afford, and pay the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program.

The Department of Community Affairs estimates that 970 households in Georgia have a commitment from the federal government through the Housing Choice Voucher program to pay their rent, but they can’t find housing. Another program run through the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, has about 350 people with vouchers who are actively searching for housing.

And because those are just two of the major programs run through those departments, the number of voucher holders who can’t find housing in Georgia is likely even higher, program officials say.

The program through the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities has issued 728 vouchers for fiscal year 2022 but only 236 have been used. The Department of Community Affairs did not provide its overall numbers for vouchers issued and used.

During his testimony Aug. 4 before the Senate study commission on unsheltered homelessness, DCA Commissioner Christopher said, “These people are effectively homeless. I don’t know if they’re sleeping on somebody’s couch or if they are sleeping on the street.”

Lawmakers and experts sitting on the committee said they were baffled by how ineffective these voucher programs have been.

Superior Court Judge William H. ‘Beau’ McClain, one of the committee experts, said, “We’ve got [money] sitting on the table for a program that doesn’t work and that isn’t being used.”

Housing experts say the issue with vouchers is multi-layered. Landlords in Georgia are not required by law to accept them. There’s also the red tape. Landlords may not want to deal with the steps that are mandated when accepting vouchers.

Dan Immergluck, a professor at Georgia State University who studies housing, said it’s becoming clear in this competitive housing market where people are willing to pay high rents, some landlords would prefer not to deal with vouchers at all.

There are also the factors that are unspoken. Racial discrimination is a leading reason for rejecting tenants, said Immergluck. While a landlord legally cannot reject a tenant based on race, they can reject applicants based on their source of income. Renting to low-income residents can also carry a stigma that landlords might worry will discourage other middle-class renters.

“Racism is a big one, and classism, the idea of we don’t want poor people in our buildings, especially luxury, high rise apartments,” he said.

Housing experts say that landlord discrimination against voucher holders has been an issue since the tenant-based assistance program was created in the 1970s and was known as “Section 8″ housing. What has changed since then is the soaring price of rent. The payment standards used to calculate the value of housing vouchers have not kept pace with the increasing market rents, particularly after the start of the pandemic.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, at least in Atlanta.

In 2020, the Atlanta City Council became the first local government in Georgia to pass a law prohibiting discrimination against housing applicants using housing vouchers. The non-profit organization, Poverty & Race Research Action Council, estimates that at least 17 states and over 100 cities or counties have approved such measures.

But Atlanta’s ordinance ultimately didn’t work, Immergluck said. The state’s housing statute, which does not mandate that landlords accept these vouchers, supersedes any city ordinance.

The consequences are tangible, and can even impact low-income renters who have secured housing. Earlier this month, the Atlanta Civic Circle obtained documents showing how several voucher holders in the Old Fourth Ward are in jeopardy of losing their leases after new owners took over their properties.

Adding to the voucher difficulties, rents have steadily risen in Georgia, displacing low-income residents. The Atlanta Regional Commission estimates that from 2014 to 2019, metro Atlanta lost 60,000 rental units that cost less than $1,250 a month.

It’s not all bad news for vouchers, though.

Maxwell Ruppersburg, the director of the office of Supportive Housing for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, said they’ve actually increased the number of people who have vouchers and are finding housing, by making it one of the department’s top priorities.

The department has worked to find more landlords who will accept vouchers, invested more in services to help people with disabilities navigate the housing process, and hired a landlord relations manager. State officials have also created a new landlord incentive, offering up to $750 to pay for administrative costs associated with mandated housing safety inspections and paperwork, and also insurance of up to $1,000 for any damages that might occur at the properties.

But even that program, which caters to people with disabilities, still has hundreds of people who haven’t been able to convert their vouchers into a stable place to live.

“The market is creating a really untenable environment for vouchers,” Ruppersburg said. “But when people are housed with vouchers, they are very effective, and they are much more cost effective.”