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Soaring Rents Squeeze Section 8 Tenants

After tenants using Housing Choice Vouchers were singled out, an alliance was formed as nonprofit tenants’ rights and legal advocacy groups stepped in to help.

February 1, 2017

On August 11, 2016, Toya Thomas came home to find a note pinned to her apartment door stating that her lease was being terminated. It was from Calibrate Property Management Company, which had recently taken ownership of the Renton Woods apartment complex. Thomas is a single mother with three children, including a 25-year-old son with special needs.

She was given 60 days to vacate the apartment.

“I called the office and I asked them what was this about,” says Thomas. “Was there something I’d done? And they were like, ‘No, it’s just because you’re on Section 8.’” 

Section 8 is a federal housing voucher program for low-income individuals and families. Thomas was one of 23 Section 8 participants at the Renton Woods Apartments given the termination-of-lease notice. In the neighboring Grammercy Apartments, 42 Section 8 tenants were also told they had to vacate by the end of their lease. Within the span of two months, four apartment complexes in the Renton area decided to withdraw their participation in the Section 8 program, resulting in over 70 low-income households scrambling to find alternative housing. 

“The waitlist may outlive some folks,” says Stephen Gray, program coordinator of the Housing Choice Voucher program at the Renton Housing Authority.Section 8, also known as the Housing Voucher Program, is a federal program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, available to those who make 50 percent or less of the average median income for their area. A renter pays up to 30 percent of their income (or 40 percent, including utilities) toward their rent, with the voucher covering the remainder.

The Renton Housing Authority currently has a wait list of 1,750 people for the 415 vouchers it has under its jurisdiction, pulling about 30 to 40 people each year from the waitlist. Due to the high demand and limited number of vouchers, many people remain on the waitlist for their lifetime, according to Stephen Gray, program coordinator of the Housing Choice Voucher program at the Renton Housing Authority.

“The stereotypes that come with people that are on Section 8, that we’re bad people, are not true,”  says LaVette Bryant, pictured here with her son.For LaVette Bryant, a single mother who is employed full time as a manager at a local Pizza Hut, the housing voucher allowed her to afford the rent at Renton’s Grammercy Apartments. Bryant feels the actions of the property management companies were discriminatory in nature.

“The stereotypes that come with people that are on Section 8, that we’re bad people, are not true. They don’t understand: One minute you have a home and the next minute they’re telling you to leave — not because you don’t have enough money, not because you’re being a nuisance or tearing up the property, it’s because you’re on Section 8, and that’s wrong,” says Bryant. 

Once Section 8 tenants at Renton Woods and Grammercy learned that they were the only residents of the apartments singled out and given notices, they began to organize with the help of several nonprofit tenants’ rights and legal advocacy groups. The Tenants Union of Washington and Washington Low Income Housing Institute contacted impacted tenants and attempted to negotiate with the property owners.

Hana Aličić of the Tenants Union of Washington explains:

“Our first efforts were to just try and sit down with the management companies so we could try to negotiate for more time for tenants to find housing.” 

When the property management companies at Renton Woods and Grammercy declined to meet with the Tenants Union, the advocacy groups contacted the media and sought legal representation for the tenants via the Northwest Justice Project. 

One minute you have a home and the next minute they’re telling you to leave — not because you’re being a nuisance or tearing up the property, it’s because you’re on Section 8, and that’s wrong.

Attorney Scott Crain of the Northwest Justice Project found that the action of the property managers violated federal housing law. 

Crain notes:

“Federal housing law prohibits landlords from taking actions that have what we call a ‘discriminatory effect’… if the people that are harmed are disproportionately minorities, women, people with disabilities, that can still be illegal.” 

Of the people who received Section 8 non-lease renewals in Renton, over 90 percent were African-American single mothers. Aličić emphasizes that a history of discriminatory housing policies can account for the overrepresentation of African Americans and minority groups among the Section 8 population.

I lost a part of my dignity.... We’re single mothers and we’re trying the best we can to raise our children.”

There have been conflicting explanations for the decisions to terminate the leases of Section 8 tenants.

Representatives for the Renton Woods and Grammercy Apartments property management companies declined requests for interviews from all media outlets. Fairfield Residential, the property management company which oversees the Grammercy Apartments, released a statement on Nov. 4 stating that efforts to renovate interior portions of their building required units to be vacated, leading to the decision to not renew leases of Section 8 tenants. 

Several parties noted a financial incentive for property management companies to opt out of the Section 8 program, as it would have allowed property managers to raise rents at faster rates, a ripple effect of rising housing prices in the Seattle area. Several tenants, including Bryant, feel there was a discriminatory motive.

To counter to the economic arguments, Dr. Lynne Manzo of the University of Washington states:

“We have to counter-balance that financial reality, that economic reality, with an equally political but broader social-goals issue of what kind of society do we want to be? What are our obligations as a society towards a public good?”“I called the office and I asked them what was this about,” says Thomas. “Was there something I’d done?  And they were like ‘No, it’s just because you’re on Section 8.’” says Toya Thomas.

Attorney Crain wrote a letter on behalf of the Section 8 tenants to both property management companies stating that they were potentially in violation of federal housing law because their actions could be argued as having a discriminatory effect and that litigation could ensue. The property managers from the Renton Woods and Grammercy apartments rescinded their lease terminations on Nov. 4, 2016, in the wake of culminating media attention. 

On Nov. 7, the Renton City Council passed an emergency ordinance, enacting source of income protections, making it illegal for landlords to refuse tenancy based off of Section 8 income. The ordinance is temporary and is slated to expire in August, 2017.

According to Thomas, the stress caused by the ordeal has been hard for her children to bear and the efforts to salvage the situation haven’t erased the sting of being singled out.

“Even though I have the option to stay, I’m choosing to leave,” says Thomas. “I lost a part of my dignity — even though it was given back. We’re single mothers and we’re trying the best we can to raise our children.”


Aileen Imperial

Aileen Imperial is a multimedia and documentary producer with a commitment to thoughtful observation and engagement. Her work has aired nationally on the PBS American Masters series, PBS NewsHour, and she is a 4-time Emmy winner for feature videos in the Arts, Culture, and Human Interest. Find her on Twitter: @imperealize

More stories by Aileen Imperial

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Renton  is not the only place section 8 tenants are being squeezed out. Tacoma is doing the  same thing but they are being sneakier. Northpoint at Creekside just raises our rent when our lease expires by $500.00 and will not renew our lease so we have to go month to month with no assurance of no other rent increases. Like I said sneakier, How many people with section 8 vouchers can come up with a extra $500.00 every month? Not me, I have been looking but so far no luck finding a new place that will take my voucher that has a 1 bedroom vacancy.

When the Section 8 program was opened in 1974, it's goal was to provide TEMPORARY assistance to low income people so they could find better housing and lift themselves out of poverty. It was never intended to be a lifetime welfare benefit, but like all government programs it has become a corrupted tax payer scam that people stay on for decades.  Section 8 is also a voluntary program, meaning landlords can chose to participate in the program or not.  These local laws that cities are passing mandating landlords take Section 8 are illegal and unconstitutional. There are several court cases making their way through the courts where almost every judge has ruled the laws are illegal and unconstitutional.  Now that we have a strong conservative court I suspect any of these cases that make their way to SCOTUS will be found unconstitutional and all of these ill conceived laws will have to be resinded.  Congress holds the purse strings to HUD and Section 8 and they have been cutting funding every year since 2005.  Congress is now reworking the 2017 Transportation and Housing Bill diverting millions away from housing and to transportation to fund Trump's infrastructure programs.  Section 8 is on its way to the dust bin as is much of HUD.  People need to get it through their heads that the gravy train is over and they need to pay their own way like everyone else.

Hmm, Jeff sounds very bitter and jealous of something that he probably can't manage if he was given a section 8 voucher. And the program was never intended to be temporary, just like it's not the only federal housing program. However, it is the only program that requires participans to be very diciplined and responsible, to the point where it is not a good fit for spenders or those who can't manage their lives. So those who remain on sec 8 are pretty responsible. People who make these arguments against this program usually can't live on a $800/month, which is what a person on SSI currently recieves. And most people are indeed just too sloppy to sustain their lives on section 8 because they are not good with money, and because the rules are very strict and require dicilpine. If you can't pay your protion of the rent you are out and can't come back. You also have to be a perfect citizen and your unit is inspected every 6 months. Those on section 8, pay 30% of their income for rent. Meaning when you start making a lot of money, this program becomes pointless and people leave. But most people, again, just get kicked out because they are spoiled and not good with money. They have to have a lot of money constantly coming to them because they can't ration when they have little. They will rather work to death just so they can have money because it's easier than being diciplined and thrifty. These people will never qualify for section 8, will always be jealous of those who remain on section 8, simply because they can not live with little money, not because someone is taking their taxes. Compare that to wars and criminal justice spending and you won't even see it on a chart. These folks usually ether work hard because they need a lot of money to live or end up in public housing(projects), which is not section 8 and is designed for people who can't manage their lives. Those who are jealous of section 8 belong to this group. They are not good with money, so they either work a lot or they crash and have nothing. Surviving on $400 a months, which is pretty much what's left for those section 8 tenants who are on SSI income after rents and utilities, is impossible for them. So anytime I hear this argument that Jeff makes, I always ask if they are upset because someone can live on $300-400 a month and can't?  Oh, and one important thing that is not mentioned here about section 8 is that there are limits for how much a rent can be. Its in the $900 range for 1br right now in Renton. So section 8 participants have a very limited choice of units to rent and most landlords usually do not want to do this because they can't hide their taxes from rental incom if feds pay that income for them and they have to keep the property up to code. It's physically impossible to find a bad section 8 tenant because they just can't last due to required dicipline and good money rationing skills. What heppened in Renton is a different case all together. These are corporate properties and they are simply raising rents which puts these Sec 8 tenatns out of that $900-1000 range. These huge corporations barely even notice the news or track who is section 8 or not. It's already set in their system that such and such tenat can't pay more that such and such ammount. It's in the lease... Everyone got it wrong here.