Housing Victory -- Cook County Board passes source of income protections for voucher holders

Adam Ballard, speaking into the Bullhorn in this photo, is an Access Living Community Organizer for the Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing.
On May 8, 2013, housing activists celebrated a victory when the Cook County Board voted 9-6 in favor of extending source of income protections to Housing Voucher Holders. The vote will extend significant protections to people with disabilities, people of color and others.

The Cook County Human Rights Ordinance protects all people who live and work in the County from discrimination and sexual harassment in employment, public accommodations, housing, credit transactions, County services and County contracting.

A campaign to extend fair housing protections to people who hold Housing Choice Vouchers, formerly known as Section 8, has built momentum within the past year. Housing voucher holders were already included in the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance; however, prior to May 8, they were not protected in the Cook County Human rights Ordinance. In fact, though the ordinance includes source of income protections, Cook County specifically identified voucher holders as a group that could be excluded from the ordinance. As a result, housing providers could legally refuse housing to individuals and families simply because they hold a housing voucher. Without this protection, housing providers and property owners outside of Chicago could and sometimes did discriminate against families, persons of color, and persons with disabilities, simply because they hold a housing voucher. The housing voucher clause was added in the early 1990’s mainly due to insistence from realtors.

Adam Ballard, Access Living’s Housing community Organizer, coordinates a housing action group called Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing, or DRACH. As a part of a Source of Income Campaign, DRACH, Metropolitan Tenants Organization, and Progress Center for Independent Living organized in an effort to pass an amendment to the Cook County Human rights Ordinance that adds Housing Choice Vouchers as a protected source of income. Said Ballard, “This issue is important to the disability community because many people leaving institutions do so with the assistance of a Housing Choice Voucher, and source of income discrimination limits the choice of where these people can live.”

Many obstacles inhibited the progress of this amendment. This included stereotypes surrounding voucher holders. Ballard explained that housing providers sometimes assumed vouchers holders will be bad neighbors and decrease property value or will bring crime. That stereotype builds from the fact that, because voucher holders are often refused housing, they are forced to live in high crime, high poverty neighborhoods and communities where the vouchers are accepted.

In addition, County Commissioners and many of the landlords against the amendment have a misconception that, if the amendment passed, they would be forced to rent to people who hold vouchers. However, this is not the case. There would still be a regular screening process, the same as any other tenant. Landlords would still be able to deny voucher holders, but they would be unable to do so based upon their status as a voucher holder. Voucher holders are also screened by the Chicago Housing Authority before they are even given vouchers. With this in mind, chances are that realtors and landlords will have a better chance of recruiting quality tenants if they draw from the voucher holder pool.

There were many administrative arguments against this amendment as well. Historically, with a lot of red tape and hoops to jump through, vouchers created a bureaucratic hassle. However these issues were dealt with and consequently, the voucher process is now a more efficient program. Ballard said, “there are realtors who rent to Housing Choice Voucher holders and have no problem.”

On March 6 in Garfield Park, the Source of Income Coalition hosted a Town Hall to raise awareness around the effort to amend the Human Rights ordinance. Tenants with vouchers shared their experiences with voucher discrimination. Based upon those experiences, a case could be made that the clause against voucher holders is a proxy for discrimination based on disability, race, family and veteran status. At the Garfield Park event, Commissioner Chuy Garcia, the lead sponsor of the amendment, testified in an attempt to build support for the change.

The Garfield Park event was the second such Town Hall. At a meeting at Progress Center in Blue Island in January, Cook County Commissioner Molly Sims stated that she supported the amendment. This was a significant victory because prior to the town hall, she was on the fence. Moving into the month of April, the Source of Income had six strong votes in support of the amendment and a few “maybe” votes. Over the following month, Ballard, DRACH and other coalition members lobbied for the votes necessary to ensure the protection vote would pass.

The hard work paid off. The amendment passed in committee and was brought to the full board on May 8, where the measure passed by a vote of 9-6. Celebrating the historic victory, Ballard said, “As a convening member of the organizing group, DRACH is celebrating this victory that will expand housing choice for people w disabilities leaving nursing homes and institutions!”

For more information about DRACH and the Source of Income Campaign, contact Adam Ballard at Access Living.
Adam Ballard
Manager of Community Organizing