Landlords throughout the St. Louis metro region openly and routinely discriminate against the poor. They advertise it. Do a search for local rental property ads and "No Section 8" and "Not Section 8 Approved" immediately come up.
Even though the city passed a law in 2015 banning discrimination based on a person's source of income — joining dozens of cities and counties across the country with similar bans — the practice continues. St. Louis County lacks any such protection at all.
Section 8 housing choice vouchers give extremely low-income families a federal subsidy to improve their residency options. Waiting lists for these vouchers are long because so many poor families are trying to escape crime and slum-like conditions.
But a recent investigation by fair housing advocates found more than 100 ads for St. Louis rental properties that explicitly banned Section 8 voucher holders. City officials admit it's a problem. Landlords will continue to violate the law if they know there's no punishment, such as a fine.
St. Louis County needs to pass an ordinance outlawing blatant housing discrimination against the poor. Such laws, along with strong enforcement, are an important way to break the cycle of poverty and address segregation.
Charles Bryson, the director of the Civil Rights Enforcement Agency in St. Louis, said his office has focused on educating landlords about the law with training sessions and by emailing and calling violators when authorities find ads with prohibited language. He said the ones they've contacted typically are unaware of the rule and change their ads. The law permits the city to issue fines up to $500 for violations.
"We have not had to fine anyone," Bryson said. Yet the practice continues. When scores of violations persist more than three years after the rule has passed, it's time for a more effective deterrent.
Landlords who refuse to accept vouchers say they want to avoid the hassle of yearly inspections, possible repairs, the chance of delayed payments and the stereotype that Section 8 entails a higher risk of property damage and crime. A thorough screening of potential renters can prevent most of these problems.
Studies have found that higher rates of violence are linked to a very specific subset of Section 8 holders, such as men with a previous criminal history. The majority of recipients are families headed by women.
In a hot rental market, landlords have no financial incentive to accept Section 8 vouchers when they can demand higher rents with less red tape from others. Previous Post-Dispatch analysis has found that Section 8 housing is concentrated in high-poverty areas, which limits residents' access to higher quality schools, job markets and areas with lower crime rates.
If the region is serious about fair housing practices, it's time to put some teeth behind its regulation.
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