Hawai‘i is consistently ranked at the top of the most unaffordable states in the country because of our extremely high housing costs. In 2018, 42% of our population was living either in poverty or fell into the Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed (ALICE) population, struggling to make ends meet each month. The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn is only expected to push more households into poverty or the ALICE population, with some estimates that that number could grow to 59%. Housing vouchers and subsidies, such as through Section 8 or Housing First, cap the percentage of income that a low-income household recipient pays toward rent usually at 30% of the household’s monthly gross income, while the voucher or subsidy pays the remaining amount of rent directly to the landlord. Housing vouchers and subsidies are hugely beneficial and needed resources that enable access for people to afford and attain stable rental housing in our communities.
Although we have many resources to help low-income households afford rent, once a household receives a voucher or subsidy, it can be very difficult to access a rental unit. Looking through rental advertisements, you commonly see language included that says “No Section 8” or “No vouchers.” Currently, Hawai‘i has no law prohibiting this practice. This greatly limits the options for those households with housing assistance and does not give them the chance to apply to many of the rental units on the market. This is called source of income discrimination, or discrimination based on where a person’s rental income originates from. Source of income discrimination excludes households with housing assistance from being judged on their tenancy qualifications just like any other prospective tenant would be. Having rental assistance because of a limited or fixed income should not be an exclusionary factor when searching for housing.
Many misconceptions about individuals who have received housing vouchers have been perpetuated throughout our community. One of the biggest misconceptions is that people with housing vouchers are more likely than other tenants to damage a rental unit. Income brackets do not determine whether someone will be a good or a bad tenant. In reality, there are actually some built-in incentives for tenants with housing vouchers to be good tenants as compared to those without assistance. Tenants with housing vouchers likely waited quite a while for their vouchers and are at risk of losing this resource if they were to do something to give cause for an eviction. In addition, landlords who participate in rental assistance programs have someone to turn to at the host program if issues do arise with the tenant. For example, for landlords who partner with the Landlord Engagement Program (LEP) on O‘ahu, if any issues come up, the landlords have access to a 24/7 support phone line and also have access to a damage fund if needed for a rental unit. It is important to note though that while the damage fund is available to landlords who partner with LEP, the fund is barely needed and used.
As one individual on Hawai‘i Island, TN, mentioned to us, “ . . . a lot of people [say] that because of previous renters that they tore up houses or messed it up, that we're all going to do the same thing. I actually like to take care of things and make it last forever.” With the help of local homeless service provider HOPE Services Hawai‘i, TN received her Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher in early 2021, yet only just recently got accepted for a rental unit in October. Through the frustration of searching for housing daily and confronting either statement of “No Section 8” in ads or landlords directly telling her no because of her voucher, she said: “ . . . [people without vouchers are] allowed to [apply for a rental unit] because they have money and because we don’t have the money but we’re getting assistance, it’s like oh, no, no, no.”
TN spent years experiencing homelessness, which really upended her life. Simple things that many of us take for granted, such as having a secure place to store our belongings, are not afforded to those living on the streets or for those in unstable situations. This extends into so many aspects of a person’s life. As TN stated: “ . . . I’m an able body and I’m capable to go to work, but there’s nowhere for me to store any of my things. I can’t just rely on everybody watching my things for me . . . Just to store things would be awesome, to have somewhere to lay your head to rest without waking up and none of your things are there.”
Discrimination based on voucher status keeps people homeless or in unstable housing situations for longer periods of time, and may even cause people to lose their vouchers if they don’t acquire housing within a certain period of time. The only reason that TN was able to keep her voucher for as long as she did without successfully finding a place to live was because of a housing search extension triggered by the pandemic; she likely would have lost her voucher if it were not for the extension. Longer periods of time experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity can greatly delay many aspects of a person’s life, such as being able to obtain and keep a stable job.
A prohibition on source of income discrimination would help us here in Hawai‘i to make housing access more equitable. Sixteen states and nearly one-hundred local municipalities across the U.S. already have this type of law in place, which studies show increases the ability for those with vouchers to successfully get into housing., Prohibiting source of income discrimination would give individuals and families with housing vouchers a better chance at accessing housing.
While legislative proposals to ban this type of discrimination stalled during the 2021 Hawai‘i State Legislative Session, a statewide network of homeless service providers and aligned advocates, including Catholic Charities Hawai‘i and HOPE Services, have been working to breakdown misconceptions about voucher holders and to engage more landlords. Although progress has been made, we need even more landlords who are willing to accept individuals and families with housing vouchers to make progress toward ending homelessness. Without more landlords, we will not be able to house more of our homeless and unstable community members and we will have to return certain federal funds that have come to Hawai‘i.
Right now, we have an unprecedented amount of funding coming into our state to house our most vulnerable community members. Now is the time for us to come together to be part of the solution to end homelessness in Hawai‘i. It is impossible to do this work alone. Whether we are landlords or neighbors, it is important for us to take advantage of the current opportunities that we have and help to get our community members off the streets and out of unstable housing situations.
To learn more about source of income discrimination and proposed legislation in Hawai‘i as well as the opportunities that we have right now to house our community members, please check out this webpage from the Office of the Governor’s Coordinator on Homelessness: https://homelessness.hawaii.gov/landlord-engagement/