Taking on source of income discrimination in Philadelphia


We testified in favor of a private right of action for Philadelphia tenants who face source of income discrimination

No one should face discrimination in their search for a home. Our legal director Mimi McKenzie shared testimony with City Council’s committee on housing, neighborhood development and the homeless in support of Bill 240060. The bill would give tenants who face discrimination based on their use of housing assistance to pay rent–a widespread practice that is illegal under Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance–the right to sue landlords immediately.

Currently, tenants must first file administrative complaints with the Philadelphia Human Relations Committee, which has a full year of exclusive jurisdiction and lacks the resources to timely respond to and investigate housing discrimination claims.

Testimony to Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development, and the Homeless In support of Bill 240060

May 29, 2024 – Dear Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development, and the Homeless:

Good morning. I am Mimi McKenzie, the Legal Director at the Public Interest Law Center. Thank you to the Committee for allowing me to testify today in support of  Bill No. 240060. In our housing practice, the Law Center seeks to stop discrimination and to promote healthy, affordable housing for people in the neighborhoods of their choice.

View the testimony here.

As members of this Committee are well aware the City of Philadelphia has an affordable housing crisis. 54% of Philadelphia’s renters are cost-burdened, meaning they pay at least 30% of their income on housing costs.[1] This problem is most acute for renters with incomes below $30,000 per year, 88% of whom are cost-burdened and 68% are severely cost-burdened, meaning they spend at least 50% of their incomes on rent.[2]

The Housing Choice Voucher program, commonly referred to as “Section 8”, is the federal government’s program for providing financial assistance to low-income families to enable them to afford decent, safe housing in the private rental market. Administered locally by the Philadelphia Housing Authority there are about 19,350 voucher holders in Philadelphia, 84% of whom are Black and 70% of whom earn less than $20,000 per year.[3]

But Philadelphians with a voucher face a steep challenge finding landlords who will accept their subsidy. 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. [4]  More recent data tells the same story. As of May 27, 2024, nearly 30 percent of Philadelphia households who received an Emergency Housing Voucher failed to secure housing within six (6) months of voucher issuance.[5]

This discrimination occurs with disturbing frequency notwithstanding Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance which explicitly prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to individuals based on “any lawful source of income… included but not limited to… all forms of public assistance, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; and housing assistance programs.”[6] And it occurs not withstanding that the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (the “Commission”)—the City agency charged with enforcing the Fair Practices Ordinance—similarly interprets this protection to include “any lawful income, subsidy, or benefit with which an individual supports themselves and their dependents. This includes but is not limited to… any federal, state, or local public assistance, medical assistance, or rental assistance program.”[7]

Since 2019 the Law Center has been working to increase enforcement of  Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance. Bill No. 240060 strengthens the Ordinance’s enforcement scheme, namely giving a complainant the option  to immediately file a private right of action in a court of competent jurisdiction.

Currently any source of income discrimination complaint requires administrative exhaustion at the Commission, meaning complainants must first file their allegations of discrimination with the Commission before proceeding to court. The Commission then has one full year of exclusive jurisdiction while it investigates or otherwise contemplates the complaint. Philadelphia’s Ordinance is an outlier in that of the top twenty (20) most populous cities in United States with source of income  protections, only Philadelphia and Denver require administrative exhaustion. More importantly, the Commission simply does not have sufficient resources to timely respond to and investigate complaints of source of income discrimination in housing. Administrative exhaustion, which is intended to promote an efficient system of justice, can end up being a barrier to justice under the Ordinance.

By way of example, for four complaints our office filed, the Commission took between eleven months and two years to complete its investigations. That is too long. For starters, tenants have a limited amount of time in which to use or lose their Housing Choice Voucher. At the Law Center we have had two recent cases where our clients’ vouchers expired after filing their complaints and before they found a place to live. Although we were able to obtain extensions from PHA at the last minute, tenants who are unable to find a landlord to accept their voucher can permanently lose their voucher.

“The option for a quicker process that could result in a tenant securing a place to live would better serve the Ordinance’s purpose and provide a more meaningful outcome for the tenant.”

Moreover, tenants with vouchers who contact us  are desperate to find housing. They are often not interested in spending time pursuing a complaint against a property owner who discriminated against them unless it will help them secure housing. The option for a quicker process that could result in a tenant securing a place to live would better serve the Ordinance’s purpose and provide a more meaningful outcome for the tenant.

This is often the case when a prospective tenant has a physical disability and finds a unique unit that accommodates their needs like a first floor unit with a wide enough door to allow a wheel cheer to pass. For example, in the last year the Law Center had a client with disabilities who was  rejected from an accessible unit because of their voucher. Although we filed a complaint on  their behalf, it took our client ten (10) additional months before they found another accessible unit. In the interim our client was homeless, forced  to couch surf with family and friends. Given the City’s severe lack of affordable housing for people with disabilities, especially those with physical impairments that require accessible units, our client needed injunctive relief to change the housing provider’s behavior in the immediate term. Specifically, our client  needed an order requiring the housing provider to process the application in a non-discriminatory means, so the client did not lose the opportunity to secure accessible housing.

Although § 9-1110(2) of the Ordinance contemplates that the Law Department can seek an injunction at the Commission’s request if the Commission believes that the unit could be rented before a final determination is made, we have learned the Commission is not set up to do that. Bill No. 240060 would allow a tenant to bypass the Commission and immediately file a complaint in court and among other things seek immediate injunctive relief. Fair housing laws realize their objectives when accompanied by this type of robust enforcement.[8]

At the same time, the ability to pursue a private right of action will not help tenants who do not have access to a lawyer. Therefore, it is also critical to continue to allow complainants to have the option to pursue an administrative complaint with the Commission. To that end, a strong, well-resourced Commission is invaluable for ensuring compliance with the law. We urge City Council  to not only pass Bill No. 240060 but to ensure that the Commission has sufficient  resources to promptly investigate and resolve complaints concerning sources of income discrimination in housing.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of this legislation.

[1] Larry Eichel & Octavia Howell, How Philadelphia Can Address Its Affordable Housing Shortage, Pew (2020), available at https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2020/10/26/how-philadelphia-can-address-its-affordable-housing-shortage.

[2] The State of Housing Affordability in Philadelphia, Pew (2020), available at https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2020/09/the-state-of-housing-affordability-in-philadelphia. This crisis is compounded by the fact that about 1,700 of the remaining project-based Section 8 units are set to lose their affordability restrictions in the next five years. Ryan Briggs & Aaron Moselle, 1,700 units of housing are set to vanish in the next 5 years. There’s little Philly officials can do, Phillytrib.com, WHYY, https://www.phillytrib.com/news/local_news/1-700-units-of-housing-are-set-to-vanish-in-the-next-5-years-there/article_7d62197d-f3e7-502a-9154-a4d9abdbf244.html.

[3] See HUD Office of Policy Development and Research Database, Dataset: Picture of Subsidized Housing, https://www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/assthsg.html.

[4] See Mary Cunningham, et al., A Pilot Study of Landlord Acceptance of Housing Choice Vouchers, Urban Institute (Sept. 2018) https://www.huduser.gov/portal/pilot-study-landlord-acceptance-hcv.html; see also Julia Teruso, In Philly, Two-Thirds of Landlords Won’t Take Affordable Housing Vouchers – Even When The Renter Can Afford the Place, Phila. Inquirer, (Aug. 27, 2018), https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/housing-vouchers-section-8-affordable-urban-institute-study-20180827.html.

[5] See U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Emergency Housing Voucher (EHV) Data  Dashboard, https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/public_indian_housing/ehv/dashboard.

[6] Phila Code. § 9-1102(cc).

[7] Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, File a complaint about housing or property discrimination, https://www.phila.gov/services/crime-law-justice/report-a-crime-or-concern/discrimination-and-unfair-practices/file-a-complaint-about-housing-or-property-discrimination/.

[8] Studies show that in jurisdictions with source of income discrimination protections, voucher utilization goes up. See Lance Freeman, The Impact of Source of Income Laws on Voucher Utilization, Housing Policy Debate, Vol. 22, No. 2, March 2012, pgs 297-319.