Dozens of families in Athens County will have to leave their homes in the coming months. How can you help?

As the Athens Messenger reported this fall, nearly sixty Athens County families have been notified that in the coming year they will no longer be able to use their federal housing vouchers in the Prokos-owned properties that they currently rent. Clients and former clients of Southeastern Ohio Legal Services are among these families. Our attorneys have been hearing firsthand about the fear and concerns these families have about finding new rental housing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research shows that increasing access to affordable housing is the most cost-effective strategy for reducing childhood poverty and increasing financial well-being in the United States. Housing vouchers, such as the Section 8 vouchers that the current Prokos tenants hold, are often described as a “win-win” for landlords and tenants – they provide rental assistance to eligible families to help provide affordable housing and guarantee monthly payments to property owners.

Despite the pluses of this program, our clients routinely tell us that landlords refuse to rent to prospective tenants solely based on the source of their rent payment. Is this legal? Yes. However, it creates huge hurdles for working families to secure housing and disproportionately impacts an already-marginalized population. One of our current clients reports that she called approximately 10 housing listings in Nelsonville while searching for a rental property that would both accept her housing voucher and have appropriate space for her five children. Unfortunately, she never found one.

Other communities in Ohio have addressed this issue by amending their city’s fair housing ordinance to add “source of income” to the protected classes prohibited from discrimination (such as race, religion, disability, and familial status). This means that in certain cities in Ohio, such as Bexley, Cincinnati, University Heights, Lindale and South Euclid, landlords cannot exclude potential tenants who meet other criteria, such as credit history or a criminal background check, solely because of the source of their rental payments.

In the absence of such regulation, how can we as a community support these Prokos tenants who will have to move? If you are a landlord, please consider accepting housing vouchers. The Athens Metropolitan Housing Authority has information online about how to begin accepting voucher payments and what benefits a landlord obtains by participating in the Section 8 voucher program. Maybe you are not a landlord, but you know family or friends with rental property? Encourage these contacts to accept vouchers by explaining that their choice to accept a housing voucher might be the key to a working family achieving financial security.

Finally, if you know one of these families who will be faced with losing their housing this winter, during a pandemic, reach out and ask how you might be able to help. Perhaps it is providing financial support or helping tenants move belongings, something not necessarily covered by rental assistance programs. Ensuring these families remain in stable, affordable housing should be a priority for our community this holiday season.

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