Changes in Section 8 laws start next week

Housing voucher status cannot be basis for refusal to rent


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By Jean Lotus


Cook County residents who qualify for subsidized housing vouchers, also known as "Section 8" vouchers, will have more rights with landlords when applying for a rental unit, starting Aug. 8.

The Cook County board amended the county's human rights ordinance to protect housing choice voucher holders from discrimination. As of next week, landlords can no longer legally refuse to rent solely on the basis of housing voucher status.

"The first thing I want to say is, don't freak out," said Rob Breymaier, Oak Park Regional Housing Center executive director, speaking to a group of area Realtors and landlords at the Oak Park Public Library on Aug. 1. "These rules are the same fair housing and non-discriminating things you already do as landlords, just extended to voucher holders."

Forest Park's Detective Michael O'Connor, Crime Free Multi-Unit Housing Officer, said landlords still have rights when it comes to who they rent to.

"A lease is a legal, civil contract with the most expensive thing you'll ever purchase in your life," O'Connor said. "You want to be certain the person you're entrusting your property to is not going to have a criminal history.

"Just because someone shows up with a housing voucher doesn't mean a landlord has to bypass everyone else and take them."

In May, the Cook County board passed an amendment to the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance to include voucher-holder status as a "protected class" from housing discrimination. The county already prohibits refusing to rent to a tenant based on ancestry, marital status, military discharge status, sexual orientation, age (over 40), parental status and gender identity.

As of the change, landlords may not refuse to rent because of a person's voucher-status. They may not impose different terms and conditions for Section 8 holders or make discriminatory statements verbally or in published form.

Landlords can be sued and fined for lying about availability of a property, blockbusting or steering, retaliating against or intimidating a person exercising fair housing rights or aiding and abetting someone else who is breaking the new rules.

Breymaier said the same rules had been in force in the city of Chicago for 20 years. The larger point of federal housing choice vouchers, he said, was to disperse concentrations of poverty and help with integration.

"The housing voucher program has been shown to break a trans-generational cycle of poverty. Children do better with access to better schools," he said.

Landlords can use all the same pre-selection criteria to screen voucher tenants, O'Connor said, including credit checks, background checks, security deposits and landlord references.

"This is what I tell our landlords," O'Connor said. "Consistency is the key to all of this. Inconsistency opens the doors to lawsuits."

Breymaier said the county was streamlining the inspection process for Section 8 voucher housing, so it had to be completed within 3-5 days. This would help landlords expedite the process so voucher tenants would not present a lag in time to get units rented.

He also warned that the county would have to work out how credit checks could be used to screen Section 8 tenants. The main thing for landlords to remember was consistency.

What are the circumstances under which a landlord could turn away a Section 8 voucher holder?

If a rental unit fails the Section 8 inspection and the landlord can prove the cost of repairs is too expensive, he may turn away a voucher applicant, Breymaier said.

He also said if the landlord has two applications, one with voucher and one without — and the non-voucher tenant can move in right away — the landlord is within rights to choose the non-voucher tenant.

But, Breymaier said, a pattern of choosing non-voucher tenants without a good reason could leave landlords open to a complaint and/or lawsuit.

According to the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, 5 percent of Cook County residents have housing-choice vouchers. The majority of voucher holders are families with children, followed by people with disabilities, the elderly and veterans.

Voucher holders must pay a portion of the rent themselves. Tenants must pass a housing authority screening and are responsible for finding and securing housing in the private market.

Once a landlord approves a tenant and fills out paperwork, a private inspection team will inspect the unit within 3-5 business days. The landlord receives the voucher payment through direct deposit, and the tenant pays the rest of it on an agreed schedule.

Just like any other tenant, voucher holders can be evicted for violation of lease terms.

If a landlord violates the ordinance, complaints can be filed with the Cook County Human Rights Commission. Landlords can be fined between $100 and 500 per violation. They can also be charged damages, pay all or part of a complainant's costs (including attorney's fees) and be mandated to lease the unit to the complainant.

O'Connor said evictions can be more troublesome when housing-choice vouchers are involved.

"A lease is normally a contract between two parties. With a voucher, it's a three-party contract and one of those parties is Cook County. That opens things up to all sorts of additional complications, and advantages," he said.

But, O'Connor added, consistency in screening tenants was a way to prevent evictions from happening in the first place.

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Reader Comments

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Rosemary Martinez from Brooklyn  

Posted: March 3rd, 2014 3:55 PM

I've been a tenant where I live for 10yrs, I have section 8 my land lord is not a very good landlord, she is a manipulater, does fraud one of afamily member lived here and was being chaged 1,245 one bedroom,livingroom and sharing bathroom and kitchen with another couple.we do not get along cause I would not let her manipulate me!.she had threw out a tenant for 6months took himm back and told HRA he owed back rent when he did not owe a penny. She got the proof from a letter from Elmhurst hospital

Charlotte hampton from Horn lake  

Posted: August 14th, 2013 1:00 PM

Sounds like a good idea for people that have respect for the voucher and a good landlord. Sometimes it gets complicated when u have a voucher. I hope this act makes it to desoto county because a lot of homeowners refuse vouchers which can be understandable. Tenants don't takecare of property but a lot of landlords abuse rights. As tenants what do u do were often looked at as we should be grateful. A lot of us are good and have respect for our voucher but who's behind us.

art from Forest Park  

Posted: August 8th, 2013 10:11 AM

If you rent to the public you don't have the right to impose segregation on potential renters same way as a restaurant, bar or buses can't refuse customers under the phony excuse of "freedom of association". I thought we got rid of this type of attitude with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. PS This month is the 50th anniversary of the historic March On Washington.

former landlord  

Posted: August 7th, 2013 4:08 PM

Whatever happened to freedom of association? If it's my building I should be able to rent to whomever I please. The state is broke--section 8 should be severely curtailed to include only the elderly and disabled.

Sharon Daly from Forest Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 6th, 2013 8:17 PM

Not to get too far out on this issue, but I believe the landlord/tenant relationship has parental overtones. Therefore, it is up to the parents to get the relationship right and insist on respect for both people and property. Landlords, get your homes in order and proper behavior will follow - most of the time. If you treat it like trash, so will the kids.


Posted: August 6th, 2013 3:47 PM

It would be okay if people treated the apts. they rented like they own them. Not like so many apt. Dwellers that don't take any pride in where they live. Saw a kid the other day in front of a sec 8 bldg. and he came outside and emptied out his trunk of his car right into the street. There is always litter in front of the bldg. as well. It's a shame.

Michelle W  

Posted: August 6th, 2013 2:59 PM

I applaud the cook county residents, landlords, real estate agents, community leaders, and organizations that refused to accept discrimination at any level- Michelle W

Michelle W  

Posted: August 6th, 2013 2:55 PM

Landlords who already consider "human rights" and uphold fair housing laws aren't intimidated by this ordinance. This ordinance merely, protects Section 8 Voucher holders from being discriminated against. The same rights that protect every human (your wife, husband, mother, children, and clients) Why shouldn't Section 8 Voucher holder's be protected as well? Are we suggesting that Section 8 Voucher Holders are Refugees? I'm appalled, we are still sinking into housing discrimination today.

joan haman from oak park  

Posted: August 1st, 2013 7:28 PM

What rights do landlords have.? Isn't there a landlord organization?"

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