Atlanta’s Section 8 tenants have trouble finding good housing

By Sonam Vashi

This story is the first in this month’s mini-series about Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) program tenants who have trouble finding adequate housing. Read the second, on the perspectives of landlords who choose not to participate in the program.

Catherine Forston has been looking for a new apartment for months. The 61-year-old has tried to rent at nearly 10 different places but keeps getting turned down for the same reason: No Section 8 allowed.

“Everywhere that I go, I hear, ‘No ma’am, we don’t accept vouchers,'” Forston says. “Everywhere is saying that they don’t accept them.”

Many people wait years to get off the waiting list for a Section 8 voucher, but when they finally receive one, it can be even more difficult to find suitable housing. A new study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows that, in most of the 50 largest metros, including Atlanta, families using housing vouchers continue to disproportionately live in poor, racially segregated areas, even when affordable homes exist in “high-opportunity” neighborhoods.

Many studies have shown that children living in mixed income areas leads to improved results, but, in Atlanta, many households receiving vouchers are concentrated in higher-poverty areas in neighborhoods to the west and south. In low-poverty metro Atlanta neighborhoods, almost 20% of the rentals are affordable to voucher holders, but they only make up 10% of the neighborhood. In higher-poverty metro neighborhoods, the inverse is true: A quarter of the rentals are affordable for voucher holders, but they make up nearly 40% of the neighborhood. Part of reason for this disparity, the study states, could be attributed to discrimination by landlords on the source of their tenants’ income.

Each dot represents 30 households receiving vouchers. (Credit: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, cbpp.org)

A recent U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) study of five different cities found that many landlords don’t accept housing vouchers, and that they are more likely to deny voucher holders in low-poverty neighborhoods than higher-poverty areas, further tightening the rental options for voucher tenants. A quick look through local online housing listings usually illustrates the point: “NO SECTION 8 OR ANY VOUCHERS ARE ACCEPTED;” “Sorry, no vouchers.” 

Forston is single and doesn’t have any children, so she’s looking for a one- to two-bedroom—often the tightest rental market in the metro area. Forston has a housing voucher from the Decatur Housing Authority and lives in an apartment in the southern outskirts of Stone Mountain. She says her apartment is not equipped for disabled people like herself—she suffers from chronic pain, high blood pressure, and gout—which is why she wants to move. She is far from a bus stop and cannot work, and she relies on federal assistance in the form of Medicaid and disability insurance but says she often still struggles to pay for basic necessities like food and toothpaste.

Because of her disability, Forston already has a difficult time physically looking for apartments, but source-of-income discrimination has made it even harder. At one point, Forston found a rental and started going through the application process, but as soon as the landlord found out she had a housing voucher, she says he decided not to rent to her.

Margaret Burgess, an attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid, advised her to ask for an extension, a common recommendation for their clients. “It’s hard enough for clients to find housing that will accept their voucher,” Burgess says. “Add on the fact that people often need units that are accessible—it can cause a problem.”

At another potential home, the landlord did not accept vouchers from Forston’s particular housing authority. While the Section 8 program is federally funded by HUD, it’s administered by local housing authorities in different jurisdictions, which often have their own requirements and regulations. For tenants and landlords in areas with many different jurisdictions, the different rules can be frustrating. “It’s ridiculous,” Forston said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

In Atlanta, tenants have an initial search time of 60 days to find an apartment once receiving a housing voucher. If they need more time, Atlanta Housing will automatically extend their search time by another 60 days, said Tracy Jones, vice president of Atlanta Housing’s housing voucher program. “It is extremely challenging for our families who have a voucher,” Jones said. “For our disabled families, our elderly families, we almost literally give them as much time as they need, because it’s even harder for them to locate an accessible unit.”

While many landlords do accept Section 8, sometimes the housing is not adequate to live in. “Anecdotally, for a lot of clients with vouchers who are in housing, we often see issues with the quality of that housing,” Burgess says. “A lot of clients will come in with serious repair issues, like collapsing ceilings, flooding, mold, all kinds of stuff.”

Forston, like many others, is getting more and more desperate as the rejections keep rolling in. “I’m tired. I might give up,” she says, turning to prayer for help. “I don’t know anything else to do.”

Read the second story, on the perspectives of landlords who choose not to participate in the program. Are you a housing voucher tenant, landlord, or advocate? We want to hear your thoughts and experiences. Email [email protected]

Sonam is a freelance reporter in Atlanta who is contributing coverage of affordable housing for Saporta Report. Her reporting, which usually focuses on criminal justice, equity, and the South, has also appeared with CNN, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others. Previously, she was a data reporter and a researcher at CNN. She is the vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, and she grew up in Gwinnett County.

4 replies
  1. Doug says:

    I think HUD should investigate the total picture of the housing voucher program and hear the landlord / property managers experiences and complaints. Typically when it is a single family detached property the property is destroyed when the voucher holder moves out, even when the owner has kept property in good repair, leaving a total rehab at the owners expense. Voucher tenants usually have no homestead pride when they have no skin in the game. They also will not report a repair issue until it becomes a major issue because they don’t want the landlord or there repair people inside the property. to view the living conditions as far as cleanliness , presence of trash, and extra people that maybe employed and should not be living in the property, let alone seeing the new high end vehicle in the garage. The home is inspected yearly by HUD and any issues must be taken care of by the owner even if it was tenant negligence that caused the issue. HUD should hire personnel that have experience with tenant housing and know the difference between normal wear and tear and tenant negligence.More of the private sector would want to participate in the program. Elderly people and others with disabilities would be better served in a well run PUD type government housing facility. Many people have abused the section 8 program for decades. Good luckReport

    Reply
  2. Julie says:

    My sister lives at Christian City in Union City and there was a waiting period of 3 months or so, but she did eventually get a 1 bedroom apartment. You might have the 61 year old lady check with them.
    Regarding the landlords that won’t allow Section 8, I have heard Property Managers discuss the reason being that their owners have been frustrated by the seemingly trivial repairs being required as the reason their owners will not allow Section 8. I think some of the strict rules put into place recently have had unintended consequences.Report

    Reply
  3. John says:

    If you want to make it easier for DCA/section 8 clients to find suitable properties, call your local DCA office and tell them to soften up the guidelines for the landlord. The new guidelines relating to the condition of the property which were issued in early 2017 are over the top. More or less, the entire home has to be perfect inside and outside for the tenant to get permission from DCA to move in. I had one home fail a move-in inspection because there were drips of paint on the outlet covers and switch plates and one of the window screens was slightly torn…I’m being very serious. The house had all brand new flooring and was freshly painted from ceiling to floor….it was very, very nice, but the inspector still failed it and cost the owner three more weeks of rent while we waited for a reinspection. These sorts of things are a big, big turn-off for landlords and property managers alike. DCA needs to figure out a more appropriate balance for the tenant AND the landlord.Report

    Reply

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  1. […] uses federal dollars to fund vouchers for private-market housing, in metro Atlanta. Our first story focused on the perspective of tenants who’ve had trouble finding housing; next, I’ll be […]Report

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