Elizabeth Barnes of Buffalo, New York, has held down a job since she was 15, and has worked hard to support herself over the years. But when she was 41 years old and with a young daughter to support, she was given a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, which forced her into early retirement and ultimately caused her to become homeless. In April of this year, Barnes received a Housing Choice Voucher (still known as Section 8) and excitedly began looking for a new home, but found that the voucher was not the blessing she had hoped for.
Again and again, landlords told Barnes that they would not accept Section 8. Despite the fact that her voucher was a legal source of income and with it she could afford the rent, she was refused housing. One landlord even told her, “I don’t rent to those type of people.” Landlords would brazenly explain to Barnes that they were refusing her because they didn’t want to carry out the inspections associated with Section 8, or they believed tenants who use Section 8 vouchers are “difficult.” Some landlords even complained about past tenants who were single mothers who supposedly couldn’t control their children.
Landlords often use source of income as a proxy for other illegal forms of discrimination, such as disability, familial status, or race. “It was very disheartening, to say the least, and it’s frustrating. I felt like I had to validate my existence, to beg them,” explained Barnes. “Nothing could have prepared me for how I felt in that moment, the rejection and the lowness I felt in that time.”
Due to source-of-income discrimination, Barnes wasn’t able to find housing in the neighborhoods where she wanted to live. Today, she lives in a transitional women’s shelter in Buffalo. While the shelter accepts her housing voucher and has provided her with a home for the short term, it’s not a permanent solution.
Barnes’s experience is troubling, but not unique. In many New York municipalities, source-of-income discrimination is legal—and even where it’s outlawed, enforcement is a challenge. Landlords across the state frequently deny housing to people with legal sources of income in the form of Section 8 housing vouchers, child support, or other non-wage income. In New York, more than half a million low-income residents who use some form of federal rental assistance to pay for housing are at risk of being turned away.
After three weeks of non-stop apartment hunting, Barnes joined the Statewide Source of Income Coalition on a trip to Albany to advocate for the New York State Assembly to take legislative action to end source-of-income discrimination. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has since announced a bill that would include source of income as a protected class in state human rights law. Assemblyman David Weprin then introduced the bill with support from his colleagues Walter Mosley and Latoya Joyner, as Assembly Bill 10610.
Source-of-income discrimination should be a nonpartisan issue. It affects the most vulnerable New Yorkers—seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, single mothers like Barnes, and others. After passing the bill, the state legislature can pave the way for a statewide law that will end this practice for good.
This article appears in the Summer 2018 edition of Shelterforce magazine.