NAACP audit finds race, income discrimination in Tennessee housing voucher program

Income-rooted bias was more prevalent, with 93.8 percent of housing providers showing discriminatory income policies compared to 37.5 percent showing race-based discrimination.

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The Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has uncovered evidence of racial and economic discrimination in a Tennessee housing voucher program.

In a multi-year investigation, the NAACP and the National Fair Housing Alliance scrutinized racial and financial discrimination against Shelby County and Memphis residents who met the requirements for Section 8 housing, The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported.

The audit, carried out in phases between 2019 and 2021, discovered widespread discriminatory practices among the housing providers.

Tennessee voucher program
An NAACP and National Fair Housing Alliance audit, carried out in phases between 2019 and 2021, discovered widespread discriminatory practices among the housing providers participating in a Tennessee voucher program. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Income-based discrimination was far more prevalent than racial discrimination, with 93.8 percent of the housing providers examined showing discriminatory policies compared to 37.5 percent of those revealing bias that was race-based.

In portions of the audit, the same housing provider received, within a short time period, a white and a Black “tester” who had similar financial and personal profiles. Researchers then examined any disparities in their treatment.

According to the report, providers displayed differences in customer service, pricing or availability, housing access and terms and conditions.

“More work needs to be done to ensure that voucher recipients have access to safe and affordable housing,” the report noted, pointing out local policy amendments needed for the Fair Housing Act. “Any solutions to the crisis in housing must take into account both racial and economic considerations.”

In other cases, leasing agencies often warned potential renters that while vouchers were accepted, the income requirements were the same as those without vouchers, which contradicts the public housing regulations in Memphis that forbid discrimination based on income.

Many housing providers inside Memphis’ city limits also said they would not take vouchers. According to one provider, this is because people who use vouchers leave their rental properties in deplorable conditions — an unjustified stigma. Furthermore, it makes such properties within the city susceptible to income discrimination lawsuits.

The demand for housing aid across the United States far surpasses the availability. Just 21 percent of the estimated 22 million American households classified as low-income received housing aid, according to the final report.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that 7,889 households in Memphis — or more than 21,900 people — received help through housing vouchers as of 2020. And 90 percent of those homes were headed by a woman.

A lack of rentals and the city’s status as a top evictor in the U.S., which poses a barrier to finding new housing, worsens the imbalance. People eligible to apply for housing choice vouchers also face other challenges, such as the list being closed to new members after approximately 15,000 people signed up for assistance in 2017.

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