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.