August 25, 2023 – Discriminating against renters based on their source of income violates Philadelphia law. Jennifer Cooper is a 44 year-old Philadelphian with disabilities, who relies on Social Security Income (SSI) of just over $900 per month. She applied for a Housing Choice Voucher around 2010, joining thousands of Philadelphians on a long waitlist for one of the only forms of housing assistance available to low-income tenants. Nearly 15 years later, in April 2023, she finally received a voucher, and began to search for safe and affordable housing.
In Philadelphia, renters like Ms. Cooper who use Housing Choice Vouchers (a.k.a Section 8) face widespread discrimination. Many landlords categorically refuse to consider prospective tenants who use vouchers or other assistance to pay rent. This common practice is illegal under Philadelphia’s local Fair Practices Ordinance, which explicitly prohibits landlords from refusing to rent based on “any lawful source of income, [including]…housing assistance programs.”
In July, Ms. Cooper found several affordable units that were managed by OCF Realty, a large property management and real estate firm. After touring apartments in East Falls, Manayunk and Roxborough, she called OCF’s office to see whether any of these properties would allow her to pay part of her rent using a voucher—and was told that none of OCF’s more than 3,000 rental properties accept vouchers. Ms. Cooper is still searching for a place to live. She has agreed to move out of her current apartment, which her current landlord is selling, by August 31.
Today, Ms. Cooper filed a complaint against OCF Realty and several associated property owners for violating Philadelphia’s ban on source of income discrimination in housing. The Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania (HEC), the nation’s oldest fair housing organization, joined her in suit. Following an anonymous tip, HEC conducted a six-month investigation into OCF beginning in June 2022, finding that OCF refused to rent to voucher holders who could afford advertised rents throughout its portfolio of properties.
Ms. Cooper and HEC are represented by the Public Interest Law Center and pro bono counsel from Dechert LLP. The complaint was filed with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.
“It was deeply disappointing to be told that I would not be considered as a tenant because of how I pay rent,” Jennifer Cooper said. “I am in a desperate situation, and all I am searching for is a safe place to live in the city where I’ve made my home.”
A 2018 study from the Urban Institute found that 67 percent of landlords in Philadelphia refuse to accept vouchers—and this rejection rate rises to 83 percent in low-poverty neighborhoods. The widespread refusal to accept vouchers limits the ability of these renters to access safe and affordable housing, deepening the concentration of poverty in Philadelphia.
““When landlords providing such housing categorically refuse to consider renters who use housing assistance, they push thousands of people closer to housing insecurity and homelessness.”
“Housing Choice Vouchers are meant to provide low-income families with a fair shot at decent and safe housing on the private rental market,” said Rachel Wentworth, Executive Director of the Housing Equality Center. “When landlords providing such housing categorically refuse to consider renters who use housing assistance, they push thousands of people closer to housing insecurity and homelessness. OCF must follow Philadelphia law and end its routine and illegal practice of source of income discrimination.”
Affordable housing is in short supply for low-income Philadelphians. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, 68 percent of Philadelphians earning less than $30,000 per year spend more than half their income on housing costs. Most of Philadelphia’s approximately 22,000 voucher holders—70 percent—earn less than $20,000 per year and have a deeply limited ability to afford housing without a subsidy, facing a substantial risk of homelessness.
“Our neighbors wait on lists for years to receive Housing Choice Vouchers—only to face widespread and illegal bias when they try to use them,” said Madison Gray, Independence Foundation Attorney Fellow at the Public Interest Law Center. “We cannot allow this to continue as housing costs continue to rise for low-income Philadelphians. Landlords must treat prospective tenants fairly, however they pay rent.”
“Our neighbors wait on lists for years to receive Housing Choice Vouchers—only to face widespread and illegal bias when they try to use them.”
Over half—51 percent—of voucher households in Philadelphia have a head of household who is disabled or elderly. Philadelphia as a whole has the highest share of residents with disabilities in the nation’s 10 largest cities, according to Pew. These Philadelphians are twice as likely to live in poverty, and the majority of poor renters with disabilities are rent burdened. Accessible housing is also in short supply in Philadelphia, where the average home is over 90 years old.
“Dechert is proud to support the Public Interest Law Center and continue our longstanding commitment to Philadelphia’s vulnerable residents” said Steve Bizar, Partner at Dechert and Co-Chair of the firm’s global antitrust/competition practice. “As long as landlords continue to act illegally toward residents who utilize housing choice vouchers in their quest for secure and reasonably priced accommodations for their families, we will continue to help safeguard their rights.”
The Public Interest Law Center has brought claims for source of income discrimination on behalf of Philadelphia tenants who use housing assistance since 2019. In December 2022, the Law Center sued a large Philadelphia landlord and property management company for source of income discrimination and racial discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, reaching an amicable settlement, including policy changes, in January 2023.