April 2018 is the 50th anniversary of National Fair Housing Month which celebrates the passage of the Fair Housing Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The federal law was groundbreaking legislation and, half a decade later, public housing programs still work to eliminate discrimination and create equal opportunity in every community.
Public housing and reasonable accommodation
A public housing authority (PHA) is a public body authorized by the federal government and created by a state to help develop and operate low-income housing under the U.S. Housing Act of 1937. There are more than 3,000 PHAs in the United States, and 75 of them are in Ohio. They are charged with the task of providing clean, affordable housing for low-income residents and administer the two major programs in Ohio: Public Housing and Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher programs.
PHAs must comply with state and federal fair housing laws and ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 which protects people from housing discrimination based on their race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability or family status. In 2012, The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) published the Equal Access Rule, which requires HUD-assisted housing programs to be open to all eligible individuals regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, PHAs are also tasked with providing “reasonable accommodations” to tenants with disabilities. These are changes made to a policy, program or service that allows someone with a disability to use and enjoy housing, including public and common-use areas. Examples of reasonable accommodation include: providing rental forms in large print for the visually impaired, providing a reserved accessible parking space near a resident’s unit, allowing a resident with a disability to live with a companion animal, and installing ramps or other modifications to a unit. Generally, PHAs will grant requests for accommodations if the request is reasonable and does not create an “undue financial and administrative burden” for the agency, or result in a “fundamental alteration” of the program or the service offered.
Housing assistance programs: Public Housing and Section 8
A Public Housing program provides safe, decent and affordable rental housing to low-income families, the elderly and persons with disabilities. Under this program, a PHA owns the properties rented to public housing tenants and acts as the landlord. HUD provides operating and capital subsidies to PHAs, and the PHAs are responsible for general property management, ongoing program compliance, and, in some cases, for providing supportive services to residents.
Generally, PHAs determine eligibility for Public Housing based on: annual gross income; whether the applicant qualifies as elderly or disabled; whether the applicant has a family; and U.S. citizenship or eligible immigration status.
Applicants’ income must be at 80 percent or below area median income, which HUD sets annually. At least one person in the household must be a U.S. citizen or have eligible immigration status. PHAs may also consider rental payment and utility payment history and check references. Typically, PHAs will deny admission to any applicant whose habits and practices may be expected to have a detrimental effect on other tenants, staff or the surrounding community.
The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program is another housing assistance option.
It is the federal government’s largest housing assistance program and more than two million low-income individuals and families that may be elderly or disabled, currently receive help through vouchers. PHAs administer this program, but assistance is not tied to a specific PHA-owned unit, as in the Public Housing program.
A family or individual who is issued a housing voucher is responsible for finding a suitable housing unit of their choice where the owner agrees to rent under the program. Rental units must meet minimum standards of health and safety, as determined by the PHA and HUD.
The PHAs receive federal funds from HUD to administer the voucher program. A housing subsidy is paid to the landlord directly by the PHA on behalf of the participating family or individual. The family then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program. Under certain circumstances, if authorized by the PHA, a family may use its voucher to purchase a modest home.
After a PHA determines that an applicant is eligible for Section 8 housing, it must make sure that the privately owned unit they have chosen meets the program’s housing quality standards and that the rent is reasonable.
Eligibility requirements for Section 8 differ from Public Housing and can be found on HUD’s website. The two major variations concern background check requirements and local preferences.
Criminal convictions may affect eligibility for Public Housing and Section 8 HCV programs. HUD requires a background check for all adult household members applying for Public Housing or Section 8 HCV programs. PHAs can adopt their own reasonable criminal history policies, but HUD rules say that applicants must be automatically denied for certain crimes such as: methamphetamine production, sex offenses requiring sex offender registration, and any household member’s eviction from federally subsidized housing because of drug-related activity within three years before applying for housing. Also, households that engage in any drug-related activity, violent criminal activity, or any other criminal activity that is a threat to the life, safety or property of others may lose their housing assistance.
Visit HUD.gov for information detailing individual housing rights and instructions on how to file a housing complaint. Fair Housing Agencies throughout Ohio also provide assistance to individuals who feel they have been discriminated against.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by attorney Jennifer Heapy, CEO of Greater Dayton Premier Management.