Equal Housing Opportunities in New York: An Evaluation of 
Section 8 Housing Programs in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse

Chapter 2 

Barriers to Fair Housing   

A Hypothetical Scenario

A hypothetical scenario is provided below to illustrate the Section 8 rental process and some of the systemic barriers many Section 8 recipients encounter.1

Ms. Griffin2 wants to move from her poor city neighborhood to the nearby suburbs. She is an African American single mother of two young children whose annual income from her job at a restaurant is less than $10,000. She cannot find a better paying job near her home because her city has lost much of its manufacturing and other employment opportunities in recent years. Because she has young children and no car, she cannot easily look outside the city for work. Ms. Griffin feels that the crime rate in her neighborhood is too high and that the housing conditions and municipal services are below those in other city neighborhoods and nearby towns. Although her roots and most of her friends are in the city, Ms. Griffin is worried that her children may not be safe there. She would like them to have a chance at a better education and, some day, to have access to the employment opportunities available in the surrounding suburbs. She now pays more than sixty percent of her income in rent and utilities for a city apartment with faulty wiring and inadequate plumbing. To move out of the city, she will initially need to obtain some form of governmental rental assistance.

As she begins her search for affordable suburban housing programs, Ms. Griffin first discovers that there is no single, central office or location where she can get information or help. Years ago, when Ms. Griffin applied for public housing in the city where she lives—she is still years away from the top of the public housing wait list—no one told her about other subsidized housing programs available outside the city. Even today, no one at the city housing authority, at city hall, or at any of the social service agencies with which she has contact has a list of the subsidized housing programs in the suburbs. Nor do they have staff to help her find that information. She looks in the Yellow Pages but finds no useful information. She does not have the money, time, or transportation to drive to the score of suburban communities surrounding her city, nor is she familiar with the logistics of getting around in those areas.

When Ms. Griffin finally manages to identify some suburban housing programs, she faces the practical problem of obtaining and submitting the application forms. Most of the housing agencies and subsidized developments she finds will not send applications by mail and will not accept photocopies of other program applications, even if they are virtually identical to the one she filled out for her city’s Section 8 or public housing programs. To get on the wait list for each of the housing programs in the metropolitan area, Ms. Griffin would have to spend more time and money traveling at least once, and sometimes twice, to dozens of agencies and rental offices. Each housing program and subsidized development also presents Ms. Griffin with different and often burdensome verification criteria and procedures. Some want references from her current landlord, others from the last three. Some want to know if she has a criminal record; others require a complete credit history. Even when Ms. Griffin manages to obtain and fill out the appropriate application forms, she discovers that each program and office employs different tenant selection criteria to determine whether or not she is entitled to assistance and how she will be ranked on their wait list. Often, she finds that the wait list is simply closed.

Over a period of months, Ms. Griffin grows exhausted locating programs, obtaining forms and verification materials, and hand-delivering applications. She devotes financial resources to her search that otherwise would go to food and clothing for her children. Yet her chances of receiving a subsidized apartment or rental assistance from a suburban housing agency are still remote. This is largely because many of the suburban programs to which she has applied use local residency preferences, giving priority to those already living or working in those communities. Ms. Griffin is not eligible for such a preference, even though she plans to use the subsidy to become a permanent resident of one of the suburban towns.  

Ms. Griffin finally manages to obtain a Section 8 rental assistance certificate, not from a suburban program, but from her own central city housing agency. She had to wait years longer than do suburban residents who apply for identical Section 8 certificates through their local programs. But now that she has a certificate, it may be used anywhere in her metropolitan area and, indeed, anywhere in her state.

Now, Section 8 certificate in hand, Ms. Griffin starts to look for private rental housing in the suburbs. The search is not easy. She cannot find any central listing of suburban apartments and discovers that many are listed only in local community newspapers or with local agents. After collecting and carefully scanning the advertisements in five or six different newspapers, she calls several landlords only to learn that many of them will not accept Section 8 tenants. Some say they do not want to deal with the paperwork and bureaucracy; others give her no reason at all. Ms. Griffin wonders if some of these landlords are refusing to rent to her because of her race.

In addition, Ms. Griffin discovers that many of the suburban rents are higher than the maximum allowed for her Section 8 certificate and that she is unable to persuade prospective landlords to lower their rents. Neither the city Section 8 agency nor the one in the suburban area in which the apartment is located offer to help negotiate the rent with the landlord.

It becomes increasingly clear to her that her rental certificate will be easier to use within the city, rather than in a suburban community. Time is running out—she has to use her subsidy (she’s told) within sixty days or she will lose it. That is not much time to look for an apartment, given that she is a working single parent. Although she requests more time to continue her search, the Section 8 staff refuses in her case. Ms. Griffin suspects that they would rather give the subsidy to a family who will more quickly find an apartment in the city. Ms. Griffin also learns that, if she were to find a suburban apartment, she could no longer work with the city housing staff with whom she is familiar, but instead would have to contact and work with the staff at the suburban Section 8 agency.    

Ultimately, the system steers Ms. Griffin away from the suburbs, and she decides to use her Section 8 certificate to rent an apartment in the city, right in the neighborhood where she started out.

Barriers to Section 8 Mobility  

Although specific administrative practices vary among public housing authorities and the full range of obstacles encountered by Ms. Griffin are not present in all housing markets, individual elements of Ms. Griffin’s story are not unusual for minority, inner-city families seeking to move to the suburbs. Additional background research by the Advisory Committee shows that the various problems illustrated in the Ms. Griffin scenario are present in the three metropolitan areas examined. There are six major barriers to securing fair housing opportunities, three of which are administrative in nature and the rest nonadministrative. These barriers are briefly described.

Administrative Barriers:

Nonadministrative Barriers:

Residency Preferences

The practice of ranking current local residents above out-of-town applicants, known as residency preferences or geographic preferences, may be the single most significant factor excluding eligible minority households from access to Section 8 subsidies allocated to suburban areas.3 Although residency preference is not technically an eligibility requirement, its effect is almost invariably the same. No applicant without such a preference will obtain a subsidy so long as any local resident is waiting for admittance into the program, regardless of whether the local resident applied months, or even years, later.

The question of residency preferences raises fair housing concerns when it is applied to a geographic area that has virtually no minority population, since in such a case the preference is likely to have a racially exclusionary effect. When the effect of local housing policy is racially exclusionary, that policy violates the Fair Housing Act both by making housing unavailable to minorities and by perpetuating existing patterns of segregation.4  

Rental Lists Not Shared

In many metropolitan areas, there are at least two, and sometimes several, separate Section 8 programs serving the area. One program usually serves the inner-city and the other serves the suburbs. Since many suburban areas are characterized by few minorities (generally below 3 percent) and smaller numbers of poor households, rentals in those areas usually go to nonminorities. An administrative barrier to mobility is created when suburban agencies do not make their lists of participating landlords available to inner-city Section 8 subsidy holders and only distribute those lists to residents already living in the suburbs.

Related to rental lists is the requirement that separate applications must be filed for city and suburban programs. This procedure could discourage city residents from applying to suburban programs, especially if there is a residency requirement.

The “Affirmatively Furthering” Obligation

Under HUD’s mandate, Section 8 administrators have an obligation to administer their programs in a manner that “affirmatively furthers” fair housing. To do so they should provide counseling to low-income families—and particularly minorities—about the opportunities to use their subsidies in areas of lower poverty concentration. They should also provide outreach to landlords in suburban areas, and provide landlord lists in suburban areas to subsidy holders. When administrators fail to carry out these practices, Section 8 recipients are hindered in their efforts to use their subsidy to move out of high-poverty areas into the suburbs.


Inner-city minorities are less likely to have cars and to that extent they are dependent upon public transportation to reach jobs and shopping areas, especially in the suburbs. Location and accessibility are key considerations in most residential moves, but they are of particular significance to lower income families dependent upon public transportation. Families without cars are less likely to move to outlying areas and more likely to concentrate in central cities or along major public transportation lines. Over 35 percent of households below the poverty level, do not have access to a vehicle.5 Studies have shown that Section 8 families without access to a car are less successful in finding a place to live.6 For example, one recent report notes that for participants in two mobility programs, “Minimal public transportation in the suburbs, combined with a lack of automobiles among subsidized families, has been a significant problem both in finding an apartment and in getting around once out in the suburbs.”7

A recent study conducted in Cincinnati found that Section 8 families willing to move to census tracts with less than 40 percent minority representation were three times more likely to have a car than those remaining in public housing.8 Another study in Chicago identified lack of reliable transportation as the greatest obstacle to finding employment once in the suburbs.9

Limited Information About Housing Options

Many lower income families and rental assistance applicants are unaware of the full range of their rental options in choosing a place to live. Families are often unfamiliar with or afraid of new neighborhoods and therefore tend to limit their housing search. Studies show that even when unconstrained by fear or uncertainty, low-income renters reported difficulty in knowing where to look for housing and felt that inadequate information had limited the efficacy of their search.10

A 1991 survey by the Citizen’s Research Education Network of over 400 Section 8 assisted families in the urban core of Hartford, Connecticut, showed that 68 percent would be interested in living in other towns in the Hartford area if given the information and opportunity.11 The report also noted that knowledge about apartment vacancies and access to information about suburban towns is passed through informal networks of friends and other contacts, further limiting the ability of families living in the central city to find out about vacancies in suburban areas.12  

A recent HUD study confirms this finding. When Section 8 enrollees were asked where they had learned about the units they wanted to rent, newspapers were the most frequent source of leads on available apartments, after landlord lists supplied by the HA. But they were also among the least efficient. Daily and weekly papers were cited in reference to 21 percent of units rented. Information from friends or through word of mouth were the most likely source, 28 percent, for units eventually rented. Lists of landlords provided by the HA accounted for 24 percent of the units rented.13

Community Attitudes and Discrimination

A final barrier to Section 8 mobility is the discrimination that low-income and minority subsidy holders may encounter as they search for housing in suburban areas.

Discrimination takes many forms from subtle to blatant. John Yinger, professor, Syracuse University, told the Committee that “African American housing seekers learn about 25 percent fewer housing units than do whites, while Hispanic renters learn about 11 percent fewer units than non-Hispanic renters.”14 Moreover, whites are more likely than blacks or Hispanics to hear about special rental incentives, such as the free month’s rent from landlords and property managers. They are also much more likely to be asked to call back the next day and to be quoted lower rents for advertised units.15 While lack of information may not be a result of discrimination, “it does limit housing choice for Section 8 recipients and encourages them to search for housing very close to the neighborhoods they know and feel comfortable with.16

Evidence from the Gautreaux program in Chicago and from related programs shows that providing Section 8 recipients assistance in finding other neighborhoods affects where they end up living.17 Housing search assistance is a powerful tool for moving people into neighborhoods with lower poverty rates and with greater job and educational opportunities.

Unfortunately, these programs have become controversial because they often carry the image of bringing the problems endemic to big public housing projects, such as crime and drug dependency, into the suburbs. However, Professor Yinger contends no evidence exists that Section 8 programs have negative effects on neighborhoods. In fact, he said since Section 8 programs operate by moving low-income people into the relatively few low-rent apartments in a typical middle-class location, there is unlikely to be such massive movement of low-income people into those communities as to have an impact.18


1  Philip Tegeler, Michael Hanley, and Judith Liben, Transforming Section 8: Using Federal Housing Subsidies to Promote Individual Housing Choice and Desegregation, 30 Harvard C.R.–C.L. Rev. 451 (1995).

2  Ms. Griffin is a fictional person whose experiences illustrate those of many individuals who have struggled first to obtain Section 8 assistance and then to use that assistance to move across jurisdictional lines. The hypothetical presented here is intended to illustrate, from an individual’s perspective, some of the systemic obstacles to housing mobility that many minorities face.

3  Local residency preferences are generally used in conjunction with Federal preferences. Federal preferences are mandated for applicants who are (1) involuntarily displaced, (2) living in substandard housing, or (3) paying more than 50 percent of family income in rent. 24 C.F.R. § 982.208 (1995). Ninety percent of admissions must be of applicants who meet the Federal preference criteria, but other criteria, including local residency, may be used to rank these Federal preference applicants. In addition, under current regulations, 10 percent of annual wait list admissions may be separately reserved for local residents, whether or not those residents meet the criteria for Federal preferences. 24 C.F.R. § 982.207 (1995).

4  Huntington Branch, NAACP v. Town of Huntington, 844 F.2d 926,937–938 (2d Cir. 1988), aff’d, per curriam, 488 U.S. 15 (1988).

5  1991 American Housing Survey, table 2–7.

6  Shaun Donovan, Moving to the Suburbs: Section 8 Portability and Mobility in Hartford  (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994) (hereafter cited as Donovan).

7  Ibid., p. 34.  

8  Promoting Housing Choice in HUD’s Rental Assistance Programs: A Report to Congress, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research, April 1995, p. 35.

9  George Peterson and Kale Williams, Housing Mobility: What Has It Accomplished and What Is Its Promise? (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, 1994).

10  Glen Weisbrod and Avis Vidal, “Housing Search Barriers for Low-Income Renters,” Urban Affairs Quarterly, 16(4), 1981, pp. 465–82.

11  Donovan, p. 35.

12  Ibid., p. 38.

13  See M. Finkel, Final Report on Recommendations on Ways to Make the Section 8 Program More Acceptable in the Private Rental Market (Cambridge, MA: ABT Associates, 1994), pp. 22–23.

14  John Yinger, statement before the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, factfinding meeting, Syracuse, NY, Nov. 20, 1996, transcript, p. 272 (hereafter cited as Syracuse Transcript).

15  This evidence is based on the comparison audit methodology. In that methodology, the treatment is compared of two or more people who are identically qualified for rental apartments, except one is white and the others minority. According to Yinger, “If you have two people who are identically qualified and one of them is offered units that the other is not, if one of them is shown different units, if one of them is shown units at different terms, if one of them is given different assistance in trying to complete the paperwork that’s required to complete a transaction, anything like that is what I would call discrimination.” Yinger,  Syracuse Transcript, p. 275.

16  Ibid.

17  Ibid.

18  Ibid.