The city’s Civil Rights Commission has pushed to bring attention to housing discrimination based on how a tenant pays rent, including low-income tenants who qualify for and use Section 8 housing vouchers to help pay for housing.
At the commission’s Fair Housing Conference here on Thursday, the regional fair-housing director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development took time to emphasize the value of the sometimes maligned “Section 8″ housing vouchers to both extremely low-income households and to the overall economy.
Betty Bottiger, who works in HUD’s regional office in Kansas City, Kan., noted that the agency’s “housing vouchers” no longer are called “Section 8 housing vouchers” by HUD.
Then Bottiger started: “This is what I think about this as a practical matter: If I’m a low-income mother with kids and I’m having trouble paying my rent and all my resources are going to rent and I don’t have enough money for shoes for the kids …”
She noted that the intent of the HUD voucher program is to limit to 30 percent the amount of a low-income household’s resources that goes to rent. The voucher then pays the remaining portion of the rent so the members of the household have money to meet other household needs, like food, shoes and clothes.
“So it truly is, I think, an economic development stimulus that comes into the community. It has economic implications,” Bottiger said.
In the current fiscal year, she said HUD will be spending some $5 million in its voucher program in Cedar Rapids.
“So that’s a lot of shoes,” she said.
LaSheila Yates, the city of Cedar Rapids’ assisted housing program manager who attended Thursday’s conference, said the city currently has 1,243 households now in the voucher program each month with another 2,300 families on a waiting list to get into the program. The city, she noted, has closed access to the waiting list for now.
Bottiger emphasized that 88 percent of those on the waiting list are classified as “extremely low-income,” not just low-income.
The discriminatory taint that can come with Section 8 vouchers has surfaced in Cedar Rapids in recent years as neighbors at times have expressed opposition to proposals to build apartment complexes using federal affordable housing tax credits. Such projects must control the amount of rent they charge, and tenants also can use Section 8 vouchers if the rents are still too high. Some of those projects have characterized themselves as “work force housing” and emphasized that most tenants won’t use vouchers.
Just such a project for those 55 and older is now under consideration for the 1400 block of Third Avenue SE, and some opponents have raised the Section 8 voucher issue, according to staff report from the city’s Community Development Department.
In 2010, the Cedar Rapids City Council adopted a local-preference policy for the voucher program in response to comments that people moving to the city from Chicago and elsewhere were getting vouchers at the expense of longer-time Cedar Rapids’ residents.
Then in January 2012, the council rejected the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission’s request to amend the city’s civil rights ordinance to make it a violation for anyone to deny housing to a renter solely because the person derives income from government assistance, including a federal government Section 8 housing voucher.
Karl Cassell, the commission’s executive director, on Thursday said the commission was disappointed that the council didn’t add the change to the ordinance, but he said the commission may bring the matter back to the council at some point for debate. Landlords have opposed the issue.
About 75 people, including landlords and Realtors, attended the commission’s conference on Thursday at the Kirkwood Community College training center, 3375 Armar Dr., Marion, at the border between Cedar Rapids and Marion.
The Cedar Rapids commission now also investigates discrimination complaints in the city of Marion as well as those that come from Cedar Rapids, Cassell noted.