Discrimination toward rental vouchers leaves NJ family nearly homeless
Discrimination hampers housing opportunities for NJ Section 8 tenants
NJ bars discrimination against Section 8 voucher holders, but the Division on Civil Rights leaves enforcement of the law up to vulnerable victims.
Ryan Ross and Kayla Canne, Asbury Park Press
Two months into her search for new housing, Kimberly, a 42-year-old Woodbridge mother of two, is left with an impossible choice: Stay in the apartment her landlord is trying to sell and risk eviction – or face homelessness.
It shouldn’t be this way.
But Kimberly uses a Section 8 housing voucher to pay for rent – and, so far, she said nearly 15 landlords have explicitly rejected her rental application because of it.
New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination makes it illegal for a property owner to deny someone housing based on their source of income, including government housing assistance like Section 8 vouchers. Section 8 is a federally funded program that subsidizes housing for low-income tenants through direct rent payments to landlords.
But New Jersey landlords and property owners regularly reject such vouchers with impunity, an Asbury Park Press investigation found. And state officials have made it easy for landlords to shirk the law, relying on a passive and drawn-out complaint process as their chief enforcement strategy.
Housing advocates say the complaint process fails renters because it relies on victims of discrimination to report the wrongdoing – when many times they are unaware of their own rights.
Kimberly was different: She understood the law and was willing to pursue a case, like state officials expect. And still there has been no relief.
Officials from the state Division on Civil Rights took a month to respond to Kimberly’s complaints about the discrimination she has faced because of her voucher – only to tell her the initial “processing” of her case could take another six to eight weeks.
She might not have a roof over her head that long.
The Woodbridge waitress asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her family’s privacy.
She was given 60 days in August to find a new apartment after her landlord of seven years decided to sell their property.
She needs to stay in Woodbridge to keep the job she’s had for 15 years at a local restaurant, and to maintain stability for her 14-year-old son, who has autism and thrives in the local special education program. But finding an apartment has proven difficult.
Kimberly said her voucher was repeatedly denied by landlords and their representatives.
Income discrimination is widespread across the state and nation, the Press investigation found. The Press spoke with several Section 8 voucher holders, including Kimberly, after they responded to another housing-seeker’s Facebook post on a New Jersey Section 8 page asking for experiences with discrimination.
In every way important to landlords, Kimberly is a good tenant: Solid credit, no criminal background, has never been evicted and tends to stay in one apartment for several years. But her Section 8 voucher sticks out like a scarlet letter to landlords unwilling to accept rental assistance, even when the law tells them they must.
“It’s kind of degrading in a way,” Kimberly said of the Section 8 rejections. “Because, yes, I do have this assistance. However, I hold a job. I don’t bounce around. My kids are all quiet kids. I feel like that’s not even good enough.”
In one text conversation she shared with the Press, a real estate agent forwarded a message from another agent representing a property in which Kimberly was interested.
“Owner said NO,” it read, in response to a question about Section 8.
When Kimberly pushed back, the agent said: “It’s a tough call, but when it’s individually owned it’s different than a multi-family or apartment complex.”
The agent was incorrect. The state law draws no such distinction.
“This is just one that I have in text,” Kimberly told the Press about a month into her search. “But that’s not counting all of the verbal conversations that I have been through. This is what I’ve experienced in less than 30 days. Altogether I’ve contacted, oh, my God, more than 20. Probably about eight of them have not accepted Section 8.”
But two complaints Kimberly filed with the state on Aug. 25 went unaddressed for nearly a month. She was contacted once to clarify whether unfinished forms were duplicates of the ones she submitted; she accidentally started multiple complaint forms for the same issue.
On Sept. 7, she was told by email her forms were complete and a housing investigator would reach out within a week. Then, she heard nothing for nearly two weeks, until Sept. 20. A division investigator called to complete the intake interview, questioning Kimberly about the alleged incidents and collecting what evidence she had.
More than a week later, on Sept. 29 — nearly six weeks after the landlords explicitly rejected her tenancy out of hand — Kimberly received a letter from the division saying her complaints have been formally filed. Initial “processing” of the complaints will take another six to eight weeks, the letter said, and she should not expect to hear anything more before then.
Either way, she is still racing the clock to secure new housing.
She was hoping a lottery for new affordable housing apartments in Woodbridge might be the answer. Then, Kimberly said, she found out there were only 35 available units for a list of 25,000 applicants.
“My chances are slim to none,” she said.
Her Section 8 case worker told her even if her landlord proceeds with an eviction, it will be months before he can get a court date.
Still, having an eviction filing on her record will hamper any future opportunity at finding housing.
“I’m not sure what happens if I don’t find anything,” she said.
This investigation was made possible through a reporting partnership with Report for America, an initiative that works with news organizations across the nation to revitalize local news by helping to pay the salaries of journalists covering under-reported issues and communities, and a grant from the Jules L. Plangere Family Foundation. You can help support this novel collaboration on community journalism at the Press.
Kayla Canne covers affordable housing along the Jersey Shore. Her work is funded in part by Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. She is a proud Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, and beyond journalism, she enjoys playing creatively with pottery and batik. Get in touch at [email protected] or on Twitter @kaylacanne.