Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Can County Protect Renters With Housing Vouchers?

New resolution seeks solutions to Section 8 discrimination by landlords.

By - Jul 8th, 2023 02:49 pm

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

There’s a problem in Milwaukee County of landlords turning away prospective tenants because they plan to pay their rent with Section 8 housing vouchers.

These vouchers are used by people and families making 50% or less of the area’s median income. Sup. Shawn Rolland has authored a resolution that he hopes will eventually lead to a solution to the problem.

Rolland said he and others on the county board have been hearing stories from housing advocates about the Section 8 discrimination. The county does have an ordinance that prohibits this discrimination, but the process of enforcement is not working as currently devised. What’s more, there is legal uncertainty about whether the county can enforce its own ordinance.

With enforcement now a questionable tactic for solving the problem, Rolland’s resolution seeks to “develop a list of viable strategies to incentivize landlords to accept renters who are participating in Milwaukee County’s Housing Choice Voucher Program.” And it asks the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, which contains the county’s Housing Division, to work with any other relevant county agencies on the issue.

In June, Milwaukee County supervisors held a public hearing to listen to concerns surrounding housing in the county and something that kept coming up was discrimination against families seeking rentals with Section 8 Housing Vouchers.

Kori Schneider Peragine, Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, told supervisors that vouchers are a critical tool supporting housing stability. “Yet every day folks searching for housing are being discriminated against by landlords who won’t accept their voucher.”

The hearing was held by the Committee on Health Equity, Human Needs and Strategic Planning, which Rolland chairs. He said during the hearing that there were “active conversations” ongoing among county officials. “We, I think, sense that there is a gap just in the overall strategy,” he said.

He told Urban Milwaukee Friday that he held a meeting with housing advocates, officials from the county’s Housing Division and county attorneys from the Office of Corporation Counsel and “what we found was that, just, the process was onerous.”

It’s not easy to file a complaint. Residents need to file “verified” written complaints with the county’s attorneys in the Office of Corporation Counsel in order to initiate these enforcement proceedings. Rolland described it as requiring “a notarized form, basically, attesting to the fact that they were being discriminated against by their landlord.” Plus, once filed the enforcement process would take so long that most residents have already found other housing.

In 2018, the Milwaukee County Board passed a new county ordinance prohibiting housing discrimination against people receiving assistance. It included the mechanism for enforcement, which could result in a forfeiture action or a legal complaint initiated by the county’s attorneys against the landlords. But since 2018, as far as Rolland has been able to find, there have been zero housing assistance discrimination complaints filed with the county’s attorneys.

Given the difficult nature of the process, the Fair Housing Council was working with county officials to see if their organization could participate in the complaint process, acting as a representative of residents alleging discrimination. This prompted a review of case law and state statutes related to housing assistance discrimination and a new finding by the county’s attorneys that, given current law and legal precedent, “our ability to enforce the ordinance on the books could easily be challenged,” Rolland said.

“All I can say is, you know, as a person looking at the process it’s plain as day that it’s not working,” Rolland said.

And with the stick seemingly no longer available, Rolland thinks the county should look for a carrot. Rolland said counties and states around the country have worked out ways to incentivize landlords to stop discriminating against housing assistance renters, and he hopes the county board will eventually have a slate of different strategies to deliberate over and choose from.

“But I do think that we need to figure out a way to make this work, because there’s clearly people who are being denied a place to live,” Rolland said. “I mean, we’re hearing it from advocates, we’re hearing it from all the advocacy organizations that people are being turned away. So this problem clearly still exists and what we have on the books is not fixing it.”

Rolland’s resolution will first go before the Committee on Health Equity, Human Needs and Strategic Planning on July 12.

Read the full resolution on Urban Milwaukee.

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Categories: MKE County, Real Estate

One thought on “MKE County: Can County Protect Renters With Housing Vouchers?”

  1. mkwagner says:

    Trying to find affordable, accessible housing in Milwaukee County is a nightmare. The Housing Division does nothing to address the situation. In fact, they do not respond to inquiries or complaints. While the phone message claims calls will be returned in 48 hours, it has been over 2 months since I left my first message. Any kind of reform must start with the Milwaukee County Housing Division and its director.

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