Some Champaign landlords limit use of vouchers as income, meaning it’s harder for low-income families to rent; But Urbana landlords accept vouchers

Luis Velazquez / For CU-CitizenAccess

December 20, 2022

Housing Authority of Champaign County, located at 2008 N Market St in Champaign. Image from Google Maps Street View.

Champaign landlords are reluctant to consider federal housing vouchers as income, prompting many to not accept vouchers — but Urbana’s laws protect tenants from discrimination like that, housing officials said.

Families living in Urbana can have their federal housing vouchers for rent counted as a source of income, meaning that it is much easier to find a landlord who will rent to them.

Members of the Housing Authority of Champaign County (HACC) have talked to various landlords and leasing companies such as Green Street Realty, a popular apartment rental agency in Champaign that does not accept voucher holders and makes up a large chunk of housing in the county.

HACC continues to promote its voucher program to different landlords in Champaign County, where the poverty rate of 15.1% is higher than the national average of 11.6%, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Last year, we paid out about $12 million to landlords in Champaign County,” said Executive Director Lilly Walton earlier this spring. “We’re providing landlord incentives and just really trying to shore up relationships with landlords, especially the big ones.”

Housing choice vouchers, a federal program to assist low-income families, are considered Section 8 vouchers in the county. A Section 8 voucher provides a subsidy to a landlord who agrees to rent under the program. 

Federal funds are provided to a public housing agency, such as the county housing authority, then “the family then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website.

Stereotypes of voucher holders prevent opportunities for tenants to get access to housing, Walton said. These stereotypes include the practices of not paying rent on time, damaging property and displaying violent behavior. 

“So [we’re] just trying to, like, break through some of those fears or concerns that landlords may have about renting to low-income families, and really letting them know that not all low-income families, you know, are this way,” Walton said.

CU-CitizenAccess repeatedly reached out to Green Street Realty for comment but the company did not respond.

Walton said source-of-income discrimination contributes to a bigger issue: lack of quality housing. 

Low-income renters who search for affordable housing in Champaign County often wait as long as two years for assistance. The Housing Authority of Champaign County had a waiting list of 5,210 individuals in line for properties and programs according to the authority’s2020 annual report.

Walton said the pandemic added further stress to tenants searching for housing. Due to the pandemic, she said, landlords began to screen their tenants more prominently for issues such as not being able to pay rent on time.

Source of income codes different in Champaign, Urbana

Urbana’s Code of Ordinance includes Section 8 vouchers as a source of income; Champaign’s does not.

Champaign’s human rights ordinance, under chapter 17, defines source of income as, “the point or form of the origination of legal gains of income accruing to a person or reductions in debt the person would otherwise accrue in a stated period of time… but does not include Section 8 housing vouchers.”

State Representative LaShawn K. Ford is one of the many supporters of House Bill 2775, which  aims to protect tenants from source-of-income discrimination and amended the Homelessness Prevention Act when passed earlier this year.

Ford said many landlords and businesses associate Section 8 voucher programs with Black people, who make up 14.4% of Champaign County’s population, or they tend to avoid government bureaucracy.

“To have a Section 8 tenant is challenging for landlords, and some landlords and some businesses just don’t want to be bothered with it,” Ford said. “You have the government inspecting your house, and your property, and sometimes that’s just too much, and people don’t want to engage in that.”

Walton said it is important for landlords to understand the history of a renter and not discriminate against tenants because they have a voucher.

She said earlier this year there should be political change in Champaign to support the community with affordable housing, pointing to the push for HB 2775 to become a statewide law, which occurred in May. 

Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union Director Esther Patt explained the history of Champaign’s ordinance in an interview with CU-CitizenAccess. She said Champaign’s ordinance used to include Section 8 vouchers as a source of income. Patt knows this because she was involved when the human rights ordinance was being developed in 1975.

In 1977, The Champaign City Council passed an ordinance that included source-of-income discrimination protections for the community. Two years later, Urbana amended its ordinance to reflect Champaign’s.

That changed in October of 2007, when the Champaign City Council voted to alter its ordinance to change the language of its policy that excludes Section 8 vouchers as a source of income, Patt said. 

Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen said a factor that caused the change of language to the council’s policy had to do with the concerns of landlords regarding whether they had to accept Section 8 as a payment source.

“Section 8 has to inspect the property and improve it,” Feinen said earlier this spring. “And then [landlords] would have to make changes to their property to meet the Section 8 code requirements.”

There is also a limited number of days for a tenant to locate housing, in addition to possibly facing discrimination as a Champaign tenant. Once tenants receive a voucher, they have 60 to 120 days to secure a unit, according to the Illinois Housing Handbook.

Patt said a discrimination case can take more than 60 days, but that additional time can be given when dealing with such cases.

“You’ve got 60 days. And if you don’t find a place in 60 days, you lose the voucher,” she said. “They’ll usually give you 90 days if you’re in the process. But after 90 days, it’s over.”

Champaign residents can file a complaint through the city manager’s office.

Urbana’s take on source-of-income discrimination

Urbana’s human rights ordinance under chapter 12 defines source of income as, “the point or form of the origination of legal gains of income accruing to a person in a stated period of time… including Section 8 or any other rent subsidy or rent assistance program.”

The city of Urbana recently hired Carla Boyd to be its human rights and equity officer. Within nine months of starting her job, she worked on six cases based on tenants who were experiencing discrimination.

Four of the cases are about source-of-income discrimination in housing, Boyd said. Her position allows tenants to reach out for help in case they are discriminated against in Urbana.

Community members are encouraged to contact the office if they believe they have been discriminated against. A formal complaint is then made and sent to the respondent. There is a 28-day waiting period for the respondent to say whether the allegations are correct.  Following that, a hearing with the Human Rights Commission is scheduled and a final decision is made. 

Walton said Urbana tenants have a form of relief because the city provides protection to tenants who have felt discriminated against. Whereas Champaign leaves their tenants “kind of floating out there,” Walton said.

Boyd said it is important for landlords to learn more about source-of-income laws and where they are implemented.

“I found that oftentimes, [landlords] forget that by crossing the street, you are into a different jurisdiction and that the laws are applied differently, as far as source of income, and criminal record,” she said. 

Patt said the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union encourages tenants to speak on these issues and report them to their city of residence to make a difference. 

If tenants are not encouraged to report discrimination incidents to their designated office, no change or awareness of their situation exists, Patt said. 

A national perspective on source-of-income laws

​Only seven states have statewide laws that protect tenants from source-of-income discrimination when applying for housing. Additionally, just a handful of counties in Illinois have  policies that protect tenants from source-of-income housing discrimination.

Given these facts, Representative LaShawn Ford, along with supporters such as Housing Action Illinois, introduced House Bill 2775 to the House of Representatives last year. 

The bill revised the current state’s Homelessness Prevention Act by adding legal defenses for renters and protections against discrimination based on people’s source of income. It also prevents undue administrative burdens when applying for housing assistance. 

Protected sources of income under the bill include various types of income such as emergency housing assistance, social security, and federal Section 8 housing vouchers. 

The bill states that landlords commit a civil rights violation if they choose to apply an income or asset requirement to a tenant with a “non-wage source of income.”

Other states that do not have source-of-income laws statewide, but do locally, include Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. That means 22% of states do not have source-of-income laws statewide but do have some protections at a local level.

One-third of states do not have source-of-income laws statewide or locally, including Alabama, Alaska, New Mexico and Wyoming, according to data from the National Multifamily Housing Council.

Illinois has seven localities where source-of-income laws are implemented to protect tenants from discrimination. These include Cook County, Chicago, Glenview, Harwood Heights, Naperville and Urbana. Wheeling does have source-of-income protection but does not consider Section 8 vouchers as income. 

Statewide action to prohibit source-of-income discrimination

Ford said not being discriminated against is a human right. He said everyone should have equal opportunities for housing. 

“When you don’t, you find home insecurity, and you have people that may be threatened to be homeless,” Ford said. 

He said this spring that low wages weren’t keeping up with inflation, which increased the amount of people in need. 

“We have a case where more people qualify for low-income housing, more people qualify for Section Eight vouchers, and more people are qualifying for Social Security benefits,” he said. “And so, the numbers continue to grow.”

The house bill also provided revised guidance for landlords who have an application process or criteria that requires tenants to earn a specific amount of income, according to Bob Palmer, policy director for Housing Action Illinois. 

“The guidance would revise state law to require the landlord to consider the value of the rental subsidy,” Palmer said. “For example, in the Housing Choice Voucher Program, people pay 30% of their income in rent and then the voucher makes up the rest.”

HB 2775 was not the only attempt made in Illinois for source-of-income protection. Palmer said Housing Action Illinois, along with other supporters, tried to pass similar legislation  20 years ago and in 2017. Both attempts failed. 

“So, when it passed the House in 2021, that was the first time that any of the proposals passed one chamber of the General Assembly,” he said. 

Groups that represent rental property owners, such as Illinois Rental Property Owners Association (IRPOA), have opposed the passing of source-of-income protection at the state level, Palmer added. 

Paul Arena, IRPOA director of legislative affairs, said landlords disagree with the requirement in the bill that calls for signing a contract.

“A landlord must sign a Section 8 contract, which imposes restrictions on how you operate your business, but it also infringes on a property owner’s rights by mandating that we allow access to our business records,” Arena said. “So, the government interferes with the sale of the property.”

Palmer said negotiations were done to accommodate both parties.

“We took out the provisions in the bill that amended the eviction act that would have added an affirmative defense if the landlord refuses to accept emergency rental assistance,” he said.