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In Dallas, housing voucher holders face limited options when looking for a home

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Texas is one of a number of states that does not prohibit discrimination against recipients of federal housing vouchers. Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

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It’s really hard to find a place to rent if you don’t make a lot of money and you live in Dallas.  It’s much harder if you use a federal housing voucher to pay your rent.

Federal housing vouchers are meant to help people afford homes in any neighborhood, opening access to higher opportunity areas that lower-income people wouldn’t be able to afford on their own.

But it’s not illegal to discriminate against voucher holders in Texas. When landlords do discriminate, the options are limited. 

Linda Kenner wants her housing voucher to help her move into a quiet apartment in a nice neighborhood — preferably one without a lot of stairs.

But after calling dozens of apartment complexes over several months, she’s frustrated. Conversations with leasing agents always end the same way: She’ll confirm they have a vacancy, and then she tells them she has a housing voucher.

“And then they say, ‘Oh, no, ma’am, I’m so sorry,’” she said. “I’ve gotten so many of those. So many, and I say, I don’t know what to do.”

Kenner is 67 years old and lives on a fixed income. Her voucher is supposed to help her move to an area with low poverty and good infrastructure. But so far, it hasn’t been the ticket out of a rundown apartment in a neighborhood that feels unsafe.

“I feel like I’m being rejected and denied housing. That’s how I feel, and it’s very hurtful,” she said. “It hurts me and I’m pretty sure it hurts anyone else who’s in my position there searching.”

In some states it’s illegal for landlords to discriminate against voucher holders. Texas is not one of those states. In fact, in 2015, the legislature did the opposite, making it illegal for cities to punish landlords for this kind of discrimination.

The result, said Ann Lott from the Inclusive Communities Project, is that more than 90% of landlords in the Dallas-Fort Worth area refuse to take housing vouchers.

“The only access that most voucher holders have are with the units that are available in high poverty high minority areas,” Lott said.

Lott used to run Dallas’ housing authority, and she said voucher holders often are limited to housing developments built with federal tax credits, which aren’t allowed to exclude voucher holders. 

But these subsidized developments are also concentrated in majority Black neighborhoods and high-poverty areas in Dallas, Lott said. Decades of racial segregation and resistance from more affluent residents have prevented them from being built in wealthier, whiter areas.

Now, the city is rewriting its housing policy with a focus on racial equity. And Lott said officials appear to be taking extra effort to get more voucher-friendly housing built in high-opportunity areas of the city.

“I’m hopeful things are changing,” she said. 

It’s a guarded hopefulness, though, because she’s seen the city announce a new direction before, but hasn’t seen enough change.

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