Helen Rea currently lives in her car because of income discrimination while seeking housing. (Photo by Abbey Marshall)

These tenants faced income discrimination when seeking housing. Akron just made that illegal.

Writing, reporting and photos by Abbey Marshall

Helen Rea has applied for more than 200 houses and apartments in the last month and was rejected from every single one.

Rea, 47, has a housing voucher from United Way to cover her deposit and first two months of rent. She has spent more than $600 of what little income she has on application fees only to be told “no” over and over because of how she planned on paying her rent.

“They don’t want no vouchers,” says Rea, who has been receiving social security checks for her disabilities for 13 years. “They won’t allow it. Many have said that to my face, and sometimes only after they make me apply and pay the application fee.”

After a divorce, she spent months sleeping on the couches of friends and relatives and now sleeps in her SUV, which worsens her chronic pain from medical conditions including a degenerative spine, bone spurs and arthritis.

When it comes to finding a home, Rea is baffled as to why no one will accept her. She is seeking places within a price range she can afford and the rent is guaranteed by government assistance and her housing voucher.

Up until last week, Akron tenants searching for affordable housing might find a freshly painted ranch style with a yard on Wildwood Avenue, a 3-bedroom house on a double fenced-in lot on Carpenter Street or a “charming” updated navy blue home on Leighton Avenue. All these options, and many more currently listed, firmly state the same mantra: housing vouchers are not eligible for this property.

Now, discrimination based on a tenant’s source of income is illegal after a measure passed by Akron City Council on May 10. Commonly referred to as “source of income protections,” the ordinance was introduced on April 5 and debated for over a month, with city council public comment opportunities flooded by hours of fair housing advocates and landlords arguing their respective sides. While advocates asserted the measure was a basic step toward equity, property managers expressed wariness about accepting tenants with vouchers due to beliefs about tenant behavior, such as destroying property, which is often a misconception. 

The source of income legislation passed alongside another ordinance for renter protection called “pay to stay.” This new measure requires landlords to accept full payment of back-owed rent and late fees if a tenant provides the funds before an eviction is finalized. 

Both passed 10-0, with council members Russ Neal, Mike Freeman and Sharon Connor, all of whom own or have owned rental properties, abstaining from the vote. Those council members cited their property holdings as their reason for abstaining, though the city’s law department said it was permissible for council members owning properties to vote. Both ordinances took effect May 11 after being signed by Mayor Dan Horrigan.

The legislation was, in part, a response to Akron’s eviction rate, which is among the highest in the state of Ohio at 6.06% in 2016 — nearly double the state average of 3.49%. That is nearly 7 evictions per day in Akron. Despite an eviction moratorium during the pandemic, Akron continues to evict hundreds of tenants.

The intent is to balance the scales between landlords and tenants, Deputy Mayor of Integrated Development James Hardy says. Almost 230,000 Ohio households use housing vouchers and many cities, including Akron, did not have regulations to prohibit discrimination against a renter’s source of income.

“These are no-brainer pieces of legislation,” he says. “These are the bare minimum of renter protections we should have in our code. They do not fundamentally disrupt the playing field that is right now heavily favored toward the landlords. They’re basic fairness issues around answering the question, ‘Should you be discriminated against in housing based on how you pay your rent?’ I believe most Akronites would say no.”

But scores of landlords with property in Akron called into city council’s public comment session in the past month decrying the legislation, citing the process of accepting vouchers as burdensome or worried of high property destruction and a decrease of surrounding home values.

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“We wish to remain private, having witnessed the damage caused by uncaring, destructive Section 8 renters in that neighborhood,” Diane Kay Nichols, a North Hill landlord, said on April 24 at a city council public comment session. “We feel participation should be voluntary … We will not submit to a mandatory voucher program. We will sell at a loss or simply walk away.”

Many property managers had similar concerns, but fair housing advocates intimately familiar with vouchers said these misconceptions about low income renters are simply not true. 

“Let me dispel the myth that Section 8 tenants have a higher incidence of not caring for their property than market tenants,” says Brian Gage, the executive director of Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, which manages the local Housing Choice Voucher Program, more commonly known as Section 8.

“The majority of times when we get calls about unkept property, we look into our files and they are not a Section 8 tenant. People have a perception just because someone is not taking care of their property or a disruptive tenant, the first place they go is right into the stereotype, which could be tied to race or behavior. Just because they don’t like someone, they label them as Section 8, poor or low income.”

Gage says the source of income measure is a basic step toward equity after discrimination and redlining throughout Akron’s history.

Decades ago, landlords were able to rent to whoever they wanted based on whatever biases they held. Once legislation like the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act were passed, property managers began looking for what Gage calls loopholes to accomplish the same goal to keep some people out.

“One of those loopholes is that people can say, ‘I am not going to take a Section 8 voucher,’” Gage says. “Vouchers are predominantly held by minorities, not only in Akron, but across the country. It disproportionately affects minorities in a negative way.”

Today, a majority of public housing is located in Akron neighborhoods that have been historically redlined, a practice of refusing financial assistance, such as a loan or insurance, to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a financial risk. Often, banks would indicate predominantly Black neighborhoods as areas where loans were risky, effectively creating segregated areas.

Though that practice is no longer legal, many areas once listed as risky still bear the scars of disinvestment and tend to be locations where housing vouchers are accepted, whereas landlords in wealthier areas tend to pose barriers against securing housing with a voucher.

“There are those folks out there that may actively be utilizing the no Section 8 argument with a racially motivated bend behind it,” Gage says. “I’m not saying everyone or the majority is, but having a policy that allows people to do that is essentially creating an environment that is permissive if someone wants to discriminate based on race, they can use Section 8 as a loophole. This [ordinance] closes that loophole.”

In Summit County, 67.4% of Section 8 tenants are Black, despite only making up about 30% of Akron’s population.

Though these issues directly affect people of color at a higher rate because there are more Section 8 recipients in non-white populations, a 2019 study by the Boston Foundation found high levels of discrimination against Section 8 housing vouchers regardless of race. 90% of testers in the study who indicated they were using a voucher faced discriminatory behavior from the rental agent, including not being offered a rental application, not being able to set up an appointment to visit the property and no communication from the potential landlord — all things people like Helen Rea have experienced.

This ordinance is among the first in the state to prohibit that sort of discrimination.  A similar piece of legislation, House Bill 229, is making its way through state legislature and would prohibit discrimination in rental housing based on income. Other Ohio cities, such as Columbus, have also passed such measures in the last year.

In Columbus, however, landlords who do not comply could face jail time. In Akron, the offense is civil, not criminal. Complaints of housing discrimination based on source of income will be filed with the Akron Civil Rights Commission, an entity that already exists to enforce non-discrimination policies including housing, public accommodations and employment. The city did not address specific penalties when asked by The Devil Strip but says consequences would “be something that corrects harm done by the discrimination.”

Though language barring discrimination is now written into city code, tenants like Teresa Sigler are skeptical about enforcement, especially with such vague penalties.

“I’m still pessimistic because a lot of times they’re not going to admit that, especially if it’s illegal,” says Sigler, who has a voucher from United Way’s Home Again program. “They’ll just tell me they’re not renting it, which is an excuse I’ve heard before if they don’t just say they aren’t accepting vouchers. I don’t think it will change anything.”

Sigler has been sleeping on friends’ couches since her father, who she was living with, died. She is desperate to find a more permanent situation for her and for her son who has autism and currently lives with her mother.

“It’s been really hard,” she says. “They make it almost impossible to find a place, especially something safe.”

Between a violent crime on her record since 2006 and her housing voucher, options are slim.

“It doesn’t matter that that was 15 years ago and that I have been clean from drugs for two years,” she says. “They’ve told me they won’t accept me because of my housing voucher or my record. That’s discrimination. I just want a safe place for me and my son.”

Rea also shares in Sigler’s concerns that the ordinance might not change anything, but she is glad to hear that conversations around equitable housing are happening in the city.

But she continues to sleep in her car.

Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at abbey@thedevilstrip.com.

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