In an effort to convince more landlords to accept Section 8 applicants, local officials held a workshop last Wednesday to try and drum up support for the federally funded program that helps low-income families have private apartments and homes to rent.
Tammy Moyer, housing director for the Southeastern Minnesota Multi-County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (SEMMCHRA) explained that Section 8 is actually a colloquial term for the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program. It pays about 70 percent of an approved family’s rent, guaranteeing them a place to stay and the landlord a steady revenue stream. With the money provided by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the family does not have to pay more than 40 percent of their income for rent.
It is legal for landlords to deny rental applications because the prospective tenant wants to pay with a Section 8 voucher, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. While the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MDHR) would otherwise protect people from discrimination based on the fact they receive public assistance, that provision does not apply to Section 8 vouchers, according to the MDHR.
Moyer said it was perfectly fine for landlords to scrutinize Section 8 voucher families as prospective tenants through credit checks, criminal background checks (although SEMMCHRA already does one for voucher applicants), prior landlord references, and home visits.
“We encourage all of [those] screening methods, as long as you do not discriminate against the families,” Moyer said.
Although she addressed the possibility of denying applicants based on their Section 8 status, Moyer was somewhat vague about whether it was legal.
“One of the biggest questions that we hear a lot about is, ‘Can you refuse to rent to an individual that has a Section 8 voucher?’” Moyer said. “So, you have the right to select the tenant that you want for your unit using whatever criteria you determine. However, you must not discriminate. So, it’s important that you’re following the fair housing laws when you’re selecting your tenant.”
Moyer did not immediately respond to a later request for clarification.
During the rental application process, SEMMCHRA would inspect the rental property using HUD standards to check that it is in liveable condition, and give time for the landlord to fix any issues, Moyer said last Wednesday. The rent charged must be reasonable based on comparative prices at other properties, and equal between voucher recipients and non-recipients. Landlords can request a rent increase each year, Moyer said, which is paid by the voucher if it’s comparable to prices in the geographic area.
In May, Moyer told a meeting of the Winona County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council that there was about a two-year waiting list for SEMMCHRA’s Section 8 program consisting of more than 500 families.
“We want to get more landlords to participate in this program,” Moyer said.
Moyer went on to attempt dispelling negative perceptions of Section 8 among landlords. “I just want to assure landlords that the bad reputation that comes with Section 8, it’s not all bad. It’s a great program,” she said.
In counties other than Winona, like Dodge and Goodview, there was a slight increase recently in landlords willing to take Section 8, Moyer said, but in Winona County, the number of participating landlords was stagnant. “For the last couple of years, we haven’t seen any new landlords in this area,” she said.
A city of Winona housing study in 2016 forecast that over the next 15 years, Winona would need 276 subsidized apartments for low-income people. From 2016 to 2019, 180 market-rate apartments were built, according to a city staff report. During the same period, no subsidized apartments for low-income Winonans were built.
Visit www.hud.gov/states/minnesota/renting for more information on the Section 8 program and how to apply for a voucher.
Winona Post editor Chris Rogers contributed to this report.