Federal housing vouchers are one of the key ways for a low-income family to pay for a place to live. And landlords have the option to accept or reject those vouchers. In Fort Worth, nearly four out of five landlords contacted wouldn't accept the vouchers -- the highest rate of the five U.S. cities studied.
The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., analyzed U.S. Housing and Urban Development statistics showing Fort Worth had a denial rate of 78 percent. That compares to just 15 percent in Washington, D.C.; 31 percent in Newark, N.J.; 67 percent in Philadelphia and 76 percent in Los Angeles.
Mary K. Cunningham is vice president of metropolitan housing and community policy for the Urban Institute — and she oversaw the research.
Interview highlights: Mary K. Cunningham on...
... how vouchers work: "Housing vouchers are the primary way we provide housing assistance to people who need help paying the rent.
Households who need help get on a long waiting list, often years, and wait for a voucher. Their name then comes up on a list. When they get the voucher they then have to go out into the private market and look for housing. So they have to find a landlord to rent a unit to them.
It's hard enough to get off the waiting list. But it is also really difficult, our study finds, to find a landlord who will rent to them, particularly in places like Fort Worth."
... how the study was conducted: "We looked across five sites [Los Angeles; Washington D.C.; Newark, New Jersey; Philadelphia and Fort Worth.] And we basically called landlords.
We pulled a sample of where the units are that voucher holders could actually rent, where they're eligible for the rental cap, and then we started calling landlords that were listing units on places like Craigslist and apartmentsdot.com. We had essentially testers who were posing as voucher holders and asking landlords if they accept vouchers."
... why Fort Worth's rejection rate was highest: "Some of it has to do with how the local housing authorities are managed. Some of it has to do with a source of income protection that says it's illegal to discriminate against voucher holders, which Fort Worth doesn't have.
A lot of it has to do with where the rents are set. Meaning, is the local housing authority really setting rents at the neighborhood level, which means the landlord is getting the rent that more accurately reflects what they could get in the private market? Also, many landlords have negative perceptions of voucher holders. And because of these stereotypes they reject participation in the program overall."
... how to improve the program: "Local public housing authorities, cities and counties can reach out to landlords. I think that participation from landlords is often overlooked, in part because there isn't a lot of funding do that extra work of reaching out to landlords, recruiting them to participate in the program, provide financial incentives to really say yes to voucher holders.
Local jurisdictions can also pass income protections making it illegal to discriminate against voucher holders if you're a landlord. You have to consider them in your applicant pool and screen them like any other person who would come to rent an apartment from you."
The interview highlights have been edited for clarity.