Beginning this week it will be illegal for a landlord in suburban Cook County to deny housing to a person solely because they present a housing choice voucher, colloquially known as “Section 8.” That is good and fair and overdue. We commend the Cook County board for amending the county’s Human Rights Ordinance to make this change.
We recognize that mentioning the federally funded Section 8 program can be a dog whistle for some and that it brings out all manner of hateful and ignorant speech and a whole lot of anecdotal horror stories.
Here’s what we know though: Good landlords can and should continue to actively screen prospective tenants. Those with criminal histories, poor credit and bad references from previous landlords are a bad risk, whether they have a voucher or not. Reject them. There are good reasons evicting tenants isn’t easy, but Section 8 tenants can be booted and sometimes deserve to be.
That perspective was echoed by Michael O’Connor, the Forest Park police detective who focuses on multi-family housing units in the village. (O’Connor is also a newly elected member of the District 91 school board.) He notes rightly that offering a lease on an apartment is a critical decision. “You want to make sure 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,” said O’Connor.
The updated county ordinance simply means that a landlord cannot reject a worthy tenant simply because they hold a federally subsidized housing voucher. This protection has been the law in Chicago for 20 years already.
The change by the county in how landlords in suburban Cook County must act does nothing to increase the number of Section 8 vouchers which exist. Federal funding for the vouchers has dropped in the past few years and they’re getting scarcer. Only five percent of renters in cook County have housing choice vouchers. So don’t expect to see a rush of new vouchers turning up in Forest Park.
For those with worries about this, it is time to take some deep breaths.