Western Massachusetts is currently in what’s known as a "seller’s market," where available housing is scarce, so sellers can keep rents high and have more choice in tenants.
Although people who can’t afford the going rate can apply for state or federal housing vouchers, the wait can be years, and getting one is no guarantee they'll find a place to rent.
Housing advocates, like Maureen St. Cyr from Mass Fair Housing, say they get a lot of complaints about landlords not renting to low-income and Section 8 tenants.
“Some people see vouchers as sort of being tied to other protected classes like race or sex or familial status that people might discriminate on,” St. Cyr said.
She suspects it comes down to stigma.
“You see people with biases against people with vouchers, believing that they're not going to pay their rent on time or that they're going to damage the property, things like that,” she said.
Amanda Freeman certainly felt that.
"It's like [landlords say], 'OK, well, why does this person have a Section 8 voucher?'" said Freeman, a nursing student who spent months last year looking for an apartment accepting vouchers. "'Do they like have a mental illness or are they going to be like a bad tenant or whatever?"'
When Freeman found a place that met her budget, she said the landlord turned her down because of her credit score. Even though that’s allowed, Freeman thinks it’s unfair.
“Part of the reason why someone might have a bad credit score is because they use their credit card to buy groceries so they could pay their rent, or they didn't pay their credit card so they could pay their rent,” Freeman said.
But there are, of course, many landlords who do rent to those with vouchers — like Jo Landers, who owns two multi-family homes in Holyoke.
Landers has rented one of her two-bedroom apartments to one couple since 2008. They use a Section 8 voucher, which means they pay 30% of their income towards their rent, and the federal government pays the rest.
Landers said she comes from a low-income background herself and used food stamps and other safety net programs as a child, so she was open to renting to people with vouchers. And her unit fits the price the government allows for Section 8 housing.
Landers said when she first met her tenants, they’d just come from Puerto Rico and were trying to navigate many new systems. They’d never had a credit card, but Landers said that didn’t bother her.
“There's a lot of people out there that don't have a credit score at all,” she said. “Because they just don't have enough credit history to have a credit score. They don't have a smartphone, they don't have a computer, they don't have internet.”
But they do pay their rent on time, which is what she cares about.
A spokesperson from the federal housing department said, in an email, that the government is concerned about discrimination against tenants with housing vouchers, though technically, that wouldn’t fall under the Fair Housing Act.
But the spokesperson said if that kind of bias led to discrimination based on race, disability or another protected class, the government would take action against the landlord.
Doug Quattrochi of the trade association Mass Landlords acknowledged that some landlords to steer clear of people with vouchers.
“The stigma is usually front and center that the person receiving public assistance didn't work hard enough, which is a false impression,” he said.
Quattrochi said many landlords jump to conclusions about what it means to need government help — for instance, that the voucher-holder is not dependable. But Quattrochi said they may not understand the full picture.
“They don't realize all the other stuff that's gone into holding someone back,” he said. “The Black-white wealth gap is a problem. Historically, maybe you got a leg up with your real estate because your parents, who are also white, had some real estate back in the past. But there's a whole lot of people of color who aren't even on that property ladder at all.”
Still, aside from bias, Quattrochi said landlords may not be able to keep their rents at what the government considers “fair market value” — the maximum they’re allowed to charge someone with a voucher.
“If the market is just really expensive because there's a lack of supply and a lot of people want to live in that area, then the market rate will float up and the landlord will always adjust their rents to match the market,” he said.
There are also the federal housing requirements landlords have to meet for a Section 8 tenant. Every year, inspectors hired by a housing authority or the federal government go through each apartment looking at its condition and checking for hazards.
Housing advocates consider inspections important, but Quattrochi said they can hold up the rental process and lose money for property owners.
Landers said she finds many of the requirements arbitrary or up to an inspector’s whim.
“I had to build a shed because Section 8 decided that we couldn't store the lawnmower inside the basement because of the gasoline,” Landers said.
Landers said she once turned down a tenant with a housing voucher because the inspector cited too many problems. For one, she was told she’d have to redo the roof.
“I ended up rejecting that not on the basis of the tenant or the source of income, but on the basis of the inspection,” she said, “and the kind of headaches I was anticipating having to deal with [if] I was going to have to deal with that inspector long-term.”
Gerry McCafferty, Springfield's housing director, said landlord receptiveness may come down to location. In cities with higher average incomes, she suspects landlords have their pick of tenants and can skip those with vouchers. In Springfield, where rates of poverty are high, she thinks there is less housing discrimination.
“I think in Springfield we see a lot of landlords who like the Section 8 program because it is a reliable source of rent,” McCafferty said.
Landers said she understands why other landlords might not consider Section 8 tenants a safe bet, and gets nervous herself that they could lose their voucher. She said she tries to help her tenants stay financially afloat by helping them sign up for food benefits or other government assistance.
“As a landlord, you need to be thinking about that, be prepared and proactive, or you may end up with a tenant who digs himself in a hole," Landers said, "when maybe a little bit of help or a conversation with them might have been able to prevent that from happening."
Landers did recently decide to raise the rent for her tenants from $950 to a little over $1,000. She said she needed to increase the rent to keep up with the price of heat, insurance and property taxes.
Landers thinks she could probably get $1,400 a month on the regular market. But if she raised it that much, the Section 8 program would pull the voucher and her tenants would likely have to move.