Housing rights: Cleveland Heights is the latest suburb to fight rental discrimination by landlords

In May, Cleveland Heights became the latest suburb to pass a law shielding home renters from landlord discrimination when they try to secure a lease using a U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-issued Housing Choice voucher.

The city added Source of Income (SOI) as a protected status to its existing fair practices law that already bans rent refusals based on gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, national origin, or disability.

Cleveland Heights joined South Euclid, Linndale, Warrensville Heights, and University Heights in extending local protections to those who use vouchers to afford their rents.

“If landlords don’t have to deal with the perceived hassle of [a Housing Choice voucher] they choose to opt out if they have the power to do that,” says Cleveland Heights city councilperson Kahlil Seren, who introduced the legislation. “There are some downstream consequences—not only for our community but for the region.”

Those consequences center around housing instability and uncertainties as potential tenants try to settle in the neighborhood, especially for families with school-age children, Seren explains.

“If there are school-age children, [housing] mobility is detrimental to them incorporating into the community, to them making friends, and to consistently learning in school,” he says. “That has a lot of cascading effects on a community. Housing stability helps with that.”

The laws protecting SOI requirements serve as a proxy for protecting people of color, the Fair Housing Center in Cleveland finds. In its annual State of Fair Housing report, the center states that federal protections for lower-income renters were eroded in 2020 when the Trump administration repealed the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) under the Fair Housing Act. AFFH would have held jurisdictions accountable for increasing residential integration and undoing the effects of discrimination.

The Cleveland Heights law establishes that renters who have a complaint to lodge against a landlord who passed them over because their source of income (like federal support) are entitled to due process in the city’s courts. Landlords found guilty of discrimination could face fines starting at $10,000.

Discrimination based on SOI exists in Cleveland Heights, says Eric Dillenbeck, executive director of Heights Community Congress, a non-profit organization that conducts experiments where both a Black person and a white person apply for the same rental unit and tell the landlord they plan on using housing vouchers. Dillenbeck says, in most cases, the white applicant is offered the rental, while the Black applicant is not.

“It’s another way of discriminating against people of color because 90% of voucher holders are Black,” said Dillenbeck during a Cleveland Heights City Council Administrative Services Committee meeting held on April 15.

The Housing Choice Voucher program was designed to de-concentrate poverty and allow people to have choice on where they live, adds Cleveland State University urban studies professor Megan Hatch, who researches the effect of vouchers. The voucher program provides additional money to a tenant to be able to afford their rent.

“Source of income protects that choice and allows people to move to where they want to,” she says. “It makes those places welcoming and diverse and allows affordable housing.”

However, eliminating discrimination from SOI has proven to be an uphill battle even after communities pass a law protecting against it. University Heights added SOI to classes protected against discrimination in 2012 but has yet to implement a program that enforces the law.

“It is something we are intending to enforce more robustly when we go to reeducate our landlords,” says University Heights mayor Michael Brennan.

Training landlords has helped South Euclid get the word out about its SOI law, which it adopted in 2015 but has also struggled to enforce, says the city’s housing director, Sally Martin.

“Enforcement is tricky,” she admits. “We monitor the situation and when we see signs that say ‘No Section 8’ the landlords have to [respond]. But we still get complaints.”

South Euclid registered 15 complaints from renters against landlords in 2020. Of the 1,600 rental units in the city, 197 are owned and operated by Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), which accepts vouchers. Martin adds that South Euclid did not see an increase in rental units that accept vouchers after its SOI law was adopted, allaying some fears.

Meanwhile, the cost for renting in the region has steadily increased, Martin says, adding to concerns that lower income individuals are being priced out of the suburbs.

“What we do with cities is a symbolic way of saying something about inclusion,” she concludes, “but, really, we need the county and the state to pass this.”

Read more articles by Marc Lefkowitz.

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with more than 15 years of experience writing, speaking and advocating for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio. He served as Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and editor of its well-known blog at gcbl.org. He has a B.A. in English from Ohio State University and an M.A. in urban planning from Cleveland State University. He is a regular bike commuter and transit rider. Photo: Liz Cooper.