Fair housing is up to all of us

Thomas Okuda Fitzpatrick | 7/4/2024, 6 p.m.
We all deserve the freedom to choose where we live. But even Virginians who have won a lottery struggle to …

We all deserve the freedom to choose where we live. But even Virginians who have won a lottery struggle to find a way home.

Last month, a Richmond mother — I’ll call her Michelle — called my colleagues at Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia (HOME of VA). She had recently given birth to twins. Tragically, both passed away – one soon after birth, the other after weeks in an ICU.

Michelle had received a Housing Choice Voucher, a coupon provided by the federal government to help pay rent in a higher-opportunity neighborhood than the one where she and her other children live. These vouchers are administered locally and support low-income families seeking safe and stable housing. Waiting lists are years long. New vouchers are sometimes issued by lottery.

After a long wait, Michelle’s number had come up. But a severe shortage of housing in our region meant that she struggled to find a suitable home. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking: her voucher was set to expire at the end of this month, unless the local housing authority agreed to extend the deadline due to her heartbreaking situation.

This wasn’t the only obstacle Michelle faced. Vouchers offset the cost of rent, but they don’t cover security deposits.

Virginia law allows property managers to require security deposits that can equal two months’ rent — a near impossibility for individuals and families whose low incomes have qualified them for a voucher.

Michelle also had a relatively small pool of options.

If I were looking for a new home in the Richmond area, I could search throughout the region. But voucher holders living in Virginia’s cities must first search for housing within their own city, and are only able to transfer their voucher to another — possibly more affordable — town after waiting a full year. As a result, housing opportunities for Michelle and other voucher holders are limited.

photo  A sign advertising an apartment for rent in the Fan.

Regular violations of housing law make our rental market even more challenging. The Virginia Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against rental applicants based on race, people with Housing Choice Vouchers, and other “protected classes.” But discrimination complaints about the source of funds used to pay rent are among the most common we see. Falsehoods about voucher holders — stereotypes that they are unreliable, untidy, or dangerous — put many on a fruitless search.

Any one of us could wake up to a nightmare like Michelle did with her newborns. But the desperate housing situation she confronted reflects a failure of policy and enforcement amid a tight housing market ripe for discrimination. It also reflects a lack of investment in ridding our housing landscape of injustice.

Throughout the 20th century, public investment made housing inequity possible. Massive outlays funded whites-only mortgages and highways that fueled the growth of segregated suburbs.

Today, many Black and Latino Virginians live in areas lacking essentials that most of us would choose for our families: access to well-paying jobs, public transit, grocery stores, child-care, and tree cover to clean the air and offer shade during our blistering summers. These features of well-resourced neighborhoods remain out of reach to many.

There is nothing natural about the lack of fairness across communities in our region.

Michelle’s housing struggles were created — by policy, by investment, by human actions.

In the same ways, we can dismantle them.

This is why, for more than a half-century as a fair housing organization, HOME of VA has worked to ensure equal access to housing for all people. We envision empowered communities where everyone has the freedom of housing choice. Where we live shouldn’t determine the shape of our lives; people everywhere should have an equal chance to seek their potential. 

But as Michelle knows, as you know, where we live does matter. It determines which schools our children can attend, how safe we find our streets, how close we find our jobs. Fair access to housing is possible only without discrimination.

Elections, naturally, have a role to play in shaping policy that would make Michelle’s situation rare. But we don’t have to wait for November to make meaningful change. Our local elected officials meet regularly. Vulnerable would-be renters apply for housing daily and violations of fair housing law happen just as often. We can push our leaders to enforce fair housing law and provide funds to help voucher holders pay security deposits.

Our elected officials can act at any time, especially when we speak up.

We might also be surprised by the power each of us has to raise an alarm. Through vigilance and a spirit of helping our friends and neighbors, we can talk about fair housing protections — and guide people we know who have experienced violations toward help. At HOME of VA, we receive complaints of housing law violations every week.

Our team works hard to help enforce the law.

Michelle recently left the hospital, and her spirits are strong. With the support of one of our tireless housing counselors, she has found a home for her family and hopes to move soon. But so many of our neighbors, including others who have won a housing lottery, remain in need.

Policy solutions that make housing fair do not magically appear. We must make the case — not only at the polls, not only in November, but consistently. Fair housing is up to all of us.

The writer is the executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia (HOME of VA), a fair housing organization founded in 1971 to ensure equal access to housing for all people.

This commentary originally appeared at VirginiaMercury.com