Every morning, Demetria Roundtree wakes up and helps families find housing. She makes $15 an hour working as a community service administrative assistant at Wellspring Family Services, an organization that offers domestic-violence interventions, early learning support, housing options, and more for low-income people living in Seattle.
Roundtree, a newly single mom with four kids, knows what it's like to struggle to find a safe place to live with children. Even though it's part of her job to help find housing for other people—and even though she has a glowing rental history—for the last six years, Roundtree has been unable to find rental housing of her own.
"That's the craziest thing," Roundtree says. "I work to help people find housing, and I can't find housing myself." Roundtree is still looking for a rental that will take her Section 8 voucher. Until then, she's living with her sister.
Roundtree is luckier than a lot of people looking for housing in Seattle these days. She actually possesses a Section 8 housing voucher, which means that the government will help her pay for a place to live. She spent six years on a Section 8 waiting list before she won the voucher in January of 2013, but since then, she hasn't been able to find housing for her and her children. According to the Seattle Housing Authority, there are more than a thousand people in Seattle like Roundtree—people who have housing vouchers to use but no lease agreements to fulfill them.
Roundtree has a theory as to why: discrimination, ignorance of existing laws, and lack of enforcement. She says that multiple landlords have turned her away—largely, she thinks, because of her Section 8 status.
Unlike most of Washington State, Seattle and King County treat Section 8 voucher holders as a protected class under local discrimination laws. Landlords are barred from discriminating against potential renters because of their Section 8 and familial status. Earlier this year, however, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) conducted a series of housing-discrimination tests that turned up a disturbing pattern: Two-thirds of the tests showed evidence of discrimination based on a person's use of a Section 8 voucher, and a third showed evidence of discrimination based on single parenthood.
The survey by the SOCR revealed a major gap between progressive legislation and reality in the housing market: Seattle legislators can write laws to protect low-income renters in a city dealing with a dire housing shortage, but educating landlords that those laws exist—and enforcing them—is another story.
Seattle landlords aren't required to go through training for what's discriminatory and what isn't. The SOCR is part of a housing agency partnership that holds trainings on landlord obligations every other month, but they're voluntary. Otherwise, landlords are required to take trainings only if they're part of a settlement agreement—meaning after the landlord has possibly already flouted the rules.
"I think it would be difficult to find a landlord to say, 'Oh, it's legal to discriminate,' but it's possible that with certain practices—which feel fair to a landlord—there may be discriminatory outcomes that a landlord may not realize," Elliott Bronstein, SOCR spokesperson, said.
Lack of low-income housing in general also factors into the difficulty of finding a place to live. Roundtree's voucher will help her pay rent on a place up to $2,015 a month, but the three-bedroom properties that meet basic Section 8 maintenance requirements often ask for rents just above that figure.
Lisa Dankers, a manager with 400 properties in the Seattle area, says it isn't exactly easy for landlords to provide low-income housing. Part of the problem, she adds, is the city's continual reliance on local property taxes to pay for necessities like improved transportation and basic funding for public schools. "We have to raise rents to keep up with the property tax increases for our owners," Dankers said. "If we don't ever get a state income tax here, rents are going to have to go up to accommodate the property tax increases."
This month, the Seattle City Council will discuss proposed legislation that aims to protect low-income renters from discrimination based on an alternate source of income, like Social Security, veteran's benefits, or child support. If passed, the legislation will bring more low-income Seattleites under the protection of the law. But actually enforcing new antidiscrimination policies—as Roundtree's experience with already existing Section 8 protections demonstrates—could remain an unsolved problem, given that the proposed legislation says nothing about how to enforce the new protections.
Council Member Lisa Herbold, a longtime affordable-housing advocate, acknowledges that enforcement provisions are missing, and that enforcement of existing antidiscrimination housing laws has already been an issue. But she added: "I think Seattle has taken great strides in recent years in moving toward a more proactive approach, like more proactive housing inspections, as well as discrimination testing."
For Roundtree and the hundreds of people like her, the approach of adding protections without sufficient enforcement hasn't been enough so far. She's contacted the SOCR about her concerns—and in the meantime, she's also still looking for a place to live.