Photo of the DC Housing Authority entrance
Photo by Nick Mutschler

A civil rights organization is suing a district landlord for allegedly posting a rental ad on Craigslist for an apartment in Southeast Washington that warned perspective tenants against applying if they planned on using housing vouchers.

Housing discrimination remains a serious issue within the District, according to the D.C.-based Equal Rights Center (ERC). The organization reported a 45 percent rate of income discrimination against housing voucher holders in a 2010 report.

“An individual’s ability to obtain adequate and safe housing of their choice significantly impacts all aspects of daily life,” said ERC Executive Director Don Kahl in a recent statement.

Rent prices have grown faster in the District than in many other major cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. As a result, rent costs have outpaced the incomes of most D.C. households since 2000, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI.)

In a lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court, the ERC claims that the landlord Theophilus LLC violated both the D.C. Humans Rights Act as well as the U.S. Fair Housing Act by using discriminatory language in advertising the apartment, located in the Greenway neighborhood.

“Although landlords will sometimes outright refuse potential tenants because of housing vouchers, there are more subtle forms of discrimination [against voucher holders,]” Kahl said.

Attempts to reach the landlord for comment were unsuccessful.

Income requirements, application fees, varying rental rates and level of encouragement can become barriers that block vouchers holders from using their vouchers.

But even obtaining a voucher is difficult. Because of high demand, applicants can wait for years, and once they receive the voucher, they must find a suitable rental unit within approximately 150 days, or risk losing the voucher. Program participants pay a portion of the rent that is based on a percentage of the family’s income, (on average about 30 percent,) and the D.C. Housing Authority pays the rest of the rent directly to the landlord.

“Demand far outpaces the supply for housing vouchers in the district,” Kahl said.

There are currently around 10,500 families in the district using housing choice vouchers, formerly known as Section 8 vouchers, but there are thousands on the waiting list.

Affordable housing is defined as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of a household’s income. Yet housing costs are high in the Washington region. Almost 40 percent of D.C. households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs and 20 percent of D.C. families find themselves spending half or more of their income on housing, according to 2010 census data.

“This is not just a claim of source or income discrimination, [Theophilus LLC] also listed that individuals must be ‘working’ or ‘professionals,’ Kahl said. “But within the workforce, 30 percent of people who are over 16 years old and who have no disability are not in the labor market, while those with disabilities have 80 percent not in the workforce. There is a huge discrepancy.”

At the start of this year, Washington Mayor Vincent Gray declared the reformation of the Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force to help define a vision for housing in D.C. from

now until 2020. The goal of the task force is to help city leaders ensure the creation of more affordable housing for D.C. residents.

“We want to make sure the needs of low-income residents are adequately addressed by the task force and keep the long-term residents in mind,” said Elizabeth Falcon, campaign organizer for the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED).

A task force training session will take place Sept. 27 at CNHED, located at 1432 U Street NW. In October, the Task Force will begin an open hearing in Ward 6 to gather feedback from public about preserving low-cost housing, supporting first-time home ownership and addressing the needs of D.C.’s homelessness.

“Our goal is to have the District give more support to affordable housing programs and bring in the community to voice their concerns about affordable housing,” Falcon said.