Section 8
Voucher holder and disability rights activist Heiwa Salovitz waits in front of ADAPT of Texas offices. (Travis Putnam Hill)

Heiwa Salovitz lived in his East Austin apartment for three years before he decided to move. It wasn’t because the Villas on Sixth — a relatively new development in a rapidly gentrifying part of the city — lacked amenities. It had a pool, a 24-hour gym, and even a dog park. But Salovitz wasn’t looking for resort-style living. He just wanted more public transportation options.

Salovitz is a disability rights activist with ADAPT of Texas. He was born with cerebral palsy and gets around using an electric wheelchair. Access to public transportation is one key to his independence. Another key is his housing choice voucher, which enables him to afford a place to live in the increasingly expensive rental market of Austin.

Before leaving the Villas, Salovitz had to secure another apartment that was closer to multiple bus routes and would also accept his housing voucher. He found one, but the year he spent there was far from ideal. The new apartment was infested with cockroaches and lacked features for wheelchair access.

“Pretty much from the time I moved in, I tried to find another place to live,” he said. “If I had known what I would be going through, I wouldn’t have decided to move [out of the Villas] because I had very little choice.”

Through a fair amount of persistence, he landed an opportunity to move back to the Villas. But there was one problem: The unit would not be ready for three months — an amount of time that put him at risk of losing his voucher. (Tenants in the Austin area have about 60 to 90 days to find housing before their voucher can be revoked, though they can file for extensions.)

On top of that, Salovitz was technically homeless in the city of Austin. He slept on a couch at his friend’s apartment but couldn’t use the other facilities. “In order for me to go to the bathroom, I had to go to various places, to fast-food restaurants. I had to shower at another friend’s house,” he said.

Salovitz is not alone. Other voucher holders in the Austin area face similar misfortunes resulting from the scarcity of housing choice. It’s all part of an underappreciated problem in one of the fastest-growing cities in America, where landlords can choose to keep voucher holders out of their buildings. While the rapid influx of an affluent creative class gives rise to new luxury-condo complexes seemingly every day, many voucher holders are left to endure hardships from unsuitable or hazardous apartment conditions to stints of homelessness while searching for safe and decent housing.

A path littered with obstacles

The federal government’s Housing Choice Voucher Program — often referred to as Section 8 — is intended to help low-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities afford housing in the private market. A family or individual with a housing voucher is responsible for finding an apartment of their choosing, as long as the landlord accepts vouchers and the monthly rent doesn’t exceed the price restrictions for the metro region. (In the Austin area, that’s about $800 to $900 per month for a one-bedroom apartment.)

The voucher holder pays for only a portion of the rent — usually around 30 percent of their income — and the local housing authority covers the rest of the cost.

That might seem simple enough, but the reality is that many voucher holders must stagger down a grueling path littered with obstacles in their search for quality housing.

To even obtain a voucher in the first place, tenants typically spend years on a waiting list hoping to “win” the voucher lottery. The lucky few to actually get a voucher — a little over 6,000 households in the entire Austin metro area, or about three out of 100 qualifying households — are then confronted with severely limited options when it comes to finding a place to live.

The higher-than-average cost of rent in Austin is undoubtedly one obstacle to successfully using a voucher, but it’s far from being the only obstacle. In 2012, the Austin Tenants’ Council conducted a survey that found nine out of 10 landlords refused to lease to voucher holders, even though many of their units fell within the price range covered by housing vouchers.

“We know how expensive Austin is getting, so it’s very hard for voucher holders to find market rents that are within the boundaries of their voucher. So when you find that, that’s like finding gold,” said Nekesha Phoenix, Fair Housing Program Director at the Austin Tenants’ Council.

“You think ‘I got it, I got my voucher. Now everything’s going to be OK.’ But then when you start looking, the places that you go, either the rent is too high or [the landlords] won’t accept the voucher even though they have rents that are within the voucher’s guidelines,” Phoenix said.

The apartments that don’t accept vouchers tend to be in the very places where many people would want to live, says John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and a 2014 MacArthur Fellow.

In Austin, that means voucher holders often can’t find housing in areas west of Interstate 35 and closer to the city center, near many employment opportunities and higher-performing schools.

Landlords who do accept vouchers, on the other hand, tend to have properties located in “low-opportunity” areas — neighborhoods with higher crime and poverty rates, and that lack sustainable employment, quality schools and, often, readily accessible public transportation.

As a consequence, voucher holders are essentially isolated in parts of town with fewer resources.

‘I really had nowhere to go’

“It’s all about choice,” Salovitz says. “A person shouldn’t be on one side of town, or one area of town. They should be able to choose, ‘OK, I want to live downtown.’ That’s almost impossible unless you have more economic resources than most people with disabilities.”

Or for that matter, more resources than anyone who qualifies for a housing voucher. The limited choice in housing often puts voucher holders in precarious positions. Salovitz’s three-month episode in a quasi-homeless limbo is not an experience unique to him.

Eumeka Prudhomme, a 40-year-old voucher holder who lives in the Austin suburb of Leander with her daughter and grandson, had encountered a series of difficulties. After being displaced from her Houston home by Hurricane Ike, she resettled in central Texas, where she first obtained a housing voucher. She used the voucher to move into an apartment in Leander but discovered it was infested with mold when her cousins and newborn grandson started having breathing problems. The family decided they had to move out.

Prudhomme struggled to find a new place that would accept her family’s voucher. “As soon as you say you have a housing voucher, or something to that nature, it’s like the whole conversation goes south,” she said. Most of the places that would take her voucher were so run down that they likely would not have passed the housing authority’s inspections.

For about two months, Prudhomme and her family were without a home. They were split up across the Austin area, staying with different friends and family. Prudhomme even resorted to sleeping in her car.

“I really had nowhere to go, and I had to call on people that I normally don’t want to … because I’m one that’s always used to helping other people rather than having to ask for the help,” she said.

Voucher protection extended to veterans

Last year, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance intended to provide voucher holders with more housing choices.

The measure prohibited landlords from discriminating based on a renter’s source of income, just as they cannot discriminate based on race, gender, disability or other protected classes. Less than 24 hours later, the Austin Apartment Association (AAA) sued the city on the grounds that the ordinance compelled property owners to contract with the federal government under the housing voucher program. The AAA’s core complaint was that landlords would have to deal with “burdensome” lease paperwork and inspections from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — inspections that require rental units to meet only minimum health and safety standards.

“The City will be forcing property owners to agree to a one-sided contract with HUD, which includes approximately 400 pages of rules and regulations,” AAA President Robbie Robinson said in a press release at the time of the lawsuit. “The lease contract with HUD goes far beyond the lease that the vast majority of renters sign in Austin.”

Texas lawmakers appeared to agree with the property owners.

In September, a new state law went into effect that nullifies Austin’s anti-discrimination protections for housing-choice voucher holders. The new law also bans every city in Texas from adopting such protections in the future. Essentially, landlords across the state can continue to discriminate against voucher holders without fear of repercussions, relegating an already vulnerable population to those isolated, low-opportunity neighborhoods.

And because so many voucher holders in the Austin metro area are families with children and people of color, landlords’ refusal to accept voucher holders may have the effect of increasing segregation of these groups.

“The action of the state legislature is truly appalling in a national context where most of the rest of the country is trying to look at ways to break down the barriers of racial segregation,” Henneberger said. “The Texas Legislature just affirmatively prohibited local governmental decisions, local control, over trying to break those barriers down.”

Henneberger said that the state law did carve out an exception to protect housing voucher holders who are veterans.

“We are expecting and urging cities to enact that protection, and at least extend that protection to some people,” he said. “Apparently, children and elderly people and single mothers with children do not, in the estimate of our legislators, merit the protection, but at least veterans do.”