Housing voucher applicants enjoy new protections under Virginia law
As Charlottesville and Albemarle County continue to have conversations about affordable housing, experts hope some recent additions to Virginia’s Fair Housing Act will make it easier for those who receive housing vouchers of any kind. to have a choice of where they live – point the voucher program in the first place.
Housing vouchers are types of government assistance that eligible individuals and families can use to pay the rent or mortgage costs of the home of their choice. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development offers a variety of voucher programs, and vouchers are typically paid through local housing authorities, such as the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA).
Each housing voucher program has different eligibility requirements – for example, the traditional housing voucher program is for non-elderly people with disabilities (aged 18 to 61), another is for veterans, and there’s the more general Housing Choice Voucher program – but just about everyone who qualifies must first apply for a waitlist before being considered for a voucher.
People looking for vouchers to help cover housing costs can only apply for waiting lists when waiting lists are open. This is not an ongoing application process. (And the waiting list for social housing is a whole different thing.)
Here in Charlottesville, CHRP voucher programs have long waiting lists.
The housing authority planned to open its voucher waiting list between June 19 and 21, but released a statement Thursday evening on its choice not to do so.
“After examining HCV [housing choice voucher] waiting list which contains over 1,000 families, we have decided to serve the over 200 families on the current HCV waiting list who have self-qualified for the mainstream program, ”wrote the executive director of CRHA, John Sales, in the statement, adding that CRHA only has 17 of these traditional vouchers to distribute at this time.
In a separate email, Sales told Charlottesville Tomorrow that in all of its voucher programs, CRHA “currently [has] maximum allocation of vouchers. We currently only have sufficient funds to rent up to 448 vouchers. “
And while housing voucher programs are designed to give people in need of housing assistance more choice in where they live, this process is often complicated by homeowners, young and old alike, who don’t. not want to rent to tenants who are receiving government housing assistance.
In other words, it can be difficult for a voucher holder to find an affordable, safe and hygienic place to live, thus questioning the overall purpose of the program.
But since last year – July 2020 to be exact – Virginia has enacted protection in its Fair Housing Act for tenants who use rent assistance or homebuyers who use mortgage assistance. Homeowners and sellers therefore cannot discriminate against potential tenants or buyers on the basis of source of funds, including housing vouchers.
Nor can they legally discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex or gender, disability, family status, age (55 years and plus), source of income, veteran status, sexual orientation or gender identity.
It is a very progressive law, which has positive and far-reaching effects on people who use housing vouchers to pay rent or a mortgage, said Victoria Horrock, lawyer at the Legal Aid Justice Center and expert on fair housing. . laws.
There are a few exceptions to the provision prohibiting discrimination on the basis of source of funds, Horrock explained. Owners who own four units or less may continue to refuse vouchers (and within that, “ownership” is complicated by the fact that some companies own a small percentage of a large number of properties).
Some owners are already trying to get around the problem, Horrock said, adding that at LAJC they tend to see the worst cases.
“But luckily, the attorney general’s office and the Virginia Fair Housing Board, which oversee many fair housing cases in the state, are trying to make sure it’s clear that some of these loopholes are closed,” said Horrock. She added that earlier this year, the Virginia Real Estate Board issued advice on the new law and clarified some of the ways homeowners cannot circumvent the law.
One of the most important points of this guidance concerns the criteria for the income-to-rent ratio, Horrock said. For example, a landlord may require a tenant to have monthly income two or three times the monthly rent to qualify for the lease. And let’s say a potential tenant is required to pay 30% of their income for rent under a voucher program, and the voucher covers the rest. Suppose the rent for an apartment is $ 1,000 per month and the tenant is required to pay $ 200 of that amount, of which $ 800 is covered by the bond. The income-rent criteria used by the landlord must then be based on the amount of $ 200 that the tenant would pay. So, if the landlord requires a tenant to pay two to three times the monthly rent to qualify, the tenant would have to earn $ 400 or $ 600 per month for renting there.
A second important point clarified in these guidelines “is that administrative burden is generally not a reason that landlords can use to forgo tenancy to voucher holders,” Horrock said. Landlords often complain about not wanting to rent to voucher holders because of all the bureaucracy involved, including inspections of the rental unit.
There are also safe harbor provisions for landlords, Horrock said, including whether a landlord has worked in good faith with the housing authority to schedule an inspection, and the inspection has not taken place or has not been approved within 15 days, the owner can reject the request.
Given that the additional provisions of the law are still fairly new and that 2020 and 2021 have been such typical years for rental applications in particular, “the effect of the law remains to be seen,” Horrock said. “Unfortunately, many tenants and landlords do not yet know this, especially the smallest tenants, the smallest [non-corporate] owners. So we still see a lot of discrimination on this basis happening. But I hope that as more tenants know their rights and more landlords know their obligations, housing will open up for voucher holders.
Horrock said landlords should see voucher programs as “a good opportunity to get a certain amount of guaranteed rent each month. [no matter what happens with a tenant’s job], not some sort of administrative burden that they should try to avoid. This law basically obliges all owners over a certain size to take housing titles and to work in good faith with the tenants who own them.
And in a place like Charlottesville, which has a fairly small housing authority, the administrative burden is pretty low, Horrock said.
Even still, voucher holders will continue to face obstacles, she added, especially when it comes to housing costs. Most vouchers have a cap on the total rent for an apartment, and this cap is usually based on a retail fair market value set by HUD and determined by the number of bedrooms in the unit (see Charlottesville’s here). This limits the choice of housing in some ways, in that families and individuals will always be excluded from certain neighborhoods.
“This is the unfortunate part of the voucher program,” Horrock said. “Even if it will cover a lot more in rent than what the person could cover on their own, it will not earn you [into] each community in a region.
Like most legal texts, these provisions can get complicated, but there are many resources, Horrock pointed out.
“It’s hard to know that you are being discriminated against,” Horrock said. “If tenants apply for housing and they feel they are doing everything right and getting nowhere, we suggest they call legal aid,” Legal Aid Justice Center. The Virginia Fair Housing Office (where people can file complaints for up to a year after denial of rent, even without a lawyer) and Equal housing possibilities Virginia can help you too.
“This law should, in theory, really help people,” Horrock said. “I think this will be a game changer for a lot of tenants who need help.”