Jennifer Burbank became homeless after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020. She lived at a transitional housing facility for a few months before moving to a shelter run by the Volunteers of America (VOA) branch in Denver. But over the last two years that she’s lived in the shelter, Burbank says she has been discriminated against on the basis of her diagnosis.
First she lost her right to privacy when one of the shelter workers revealed her disability status, Burbank told Denver’s city council in October. Then, she told Jacobin, she lost her right to fair housing after the VOA used a loophole in the Emergency Housing Voucher rules to discharge her because she needed to stay at the hospital after she received chemotherapy treatments.
Now, Burbank and her cat are sleeping on Denver’s streets again as they wait for a spot to open up at a local transitional housing facility. “I’m trying to transition into this other kind of housing, but I’m not being afforded the same rights as other shelter residents,” said Burbank, who called the housing system a “biased and hostile environment.”
Burbank’s story is emblematic of the problems with the housing voucher system, which is full of loopholes that allow private landlords and shelter operators to essentially cast aside people with complex housing cases.
Every week, Denver shelter residents tell the City Council about property owners discriminating against people with different kinds of housing vouchers. Some have complained about roach-infested buildings and properties that don’t meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Others have complained about landlords harassing them until they vacated their homes.
Altogether, these issues speak to the inadequacy of America’s housing voucher system when it comes to ending homelessness. Even though vouchers can help someone find shelter for a short period of time, the supply is limited and the vast majority of people who apply for them do not receive one. When prospective tenants are successful, vouchers only address recipients’ lack of housing and leave voucher holders on their own to rebuild their social networks and sense of community, two factors that experts say are primary causes of homelessness in the first place. Finally, voucher programs leave all the power in the hands of private-property owners, who take advantage of tenants’ vulnerability to get the outcomes they want.
“There are a lot of predatory landlords and property owners going after people with vouchers and using the fact that we’re poor to abuse us,” said Ana Gloom, an organizer with the advocacy group Housekeys Action Network Denver.
An array of state housing voucher programs apply to specific groups like military veterans or people experiencing mental health challenges. But the most common type is the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV), also known as Section 8. Under the program, participants choose any rental housing that meets the requirements, and a local public housing agency pays a subsidy directly to the landlord. There are roughly 2.3 million people across the country who rely on HCVs to afford housing, although more than 10 million qualify for assistance according to figures from the White House.
The Biden-Harris administration has made expanding access to housing vouchers a key part of its strategy to end homelessness in America. The American Rescue Plan Act included additional funding for 100,000 HCVs, and another $5 billion for 70,000 Emergency Housing Vouchers. The 2023 budget also included funding to extend vouchers to youths aging out of foster care and extremely low-income veterans for the first time in US history. All of these efforts come at a time when the latest federal snapshot count found there were more than 653,000 homeless people across America in 2023, which is the most ever counted.
While vouchers undoubtedly expand access to shelter, some experts say vouchers are still an ineffective way to end homelessness.
First, there is no guarantee that someone who receives a housing voucher will be able to attain housing. For instance, the Denver Housing Authority only selects 600 to 800 people out of the 30,000 applications it receives for housing vouchers each lottery cycle, the Colorado Sun reported. Nearby, in Boulder, the Boulder Housing Authority selected just 350 people out of a recent applicant pool of more than 2,200.
The Colorado Division of Housing has also canceled more than 5,800 housing vouchers over the last five years, according to data obtained by Jacobin. The cancellation numbers paint a bleak portrait of vouchers’ efficacy. About 64 percent of those cancellations — accounting for 3,788 vouchers in total — were because of voluntary relinquishment, voucher expiration, or the death of the voucher holder. Only 3 percent of voucher cancellations were because a voucher holder moved on to more stable forms of housing, the data shows, casting doubt on vouchers’ efficacy in stabilizing tenants’ lives.
Housing voucher programs also include cinders of “man in the house” rules that effectively prohibit homeless people from rebuilding broken personal relationships. The rules originate from the 1960s when welfare agencies would randomly raid female-headed households that received welfare to find evidence of a man living in the home. The assumption was that such a woman was committing welfare fraud, because a working man would be able to provide for the woman and any of her children, according to an article in the scholarly journal Housing Policy Debate written by Rahim Kurwa, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago.
Even though the Supreme Court outlawed “man in the house” rules in 1968, Kurwa said many public housing authorities still use similar tactics to try to catch fraudsters. For example, there are rules that prohibit voucher holders from allowing “unauthorized tenants” — even if they’re spouses, significant others, or family members — to sleep over.
Gloom added that she cannot smoke medical marijuana in her unit because she has a housing voucher, despite her having a doctor’s prescription. She also cannot use her rent as a bargaining chip to force her landlord to maintain the property like more traditional renters can, she added. Gloom has also voiced these concerns in front of Denver’s city council on multiple occasions, but the problems persist. “The effect of these paternalistic policies, policing, and surveillance is to institutionalize relational poverty for poor and vulnerable people,” write Kevin Adler and Donald Burnes in their book When We Walk By.
America has largely replaced its public housing infrastructure with the Housing Choice Voucher system since it was created in the 1970s. But the transition has come at a considerable cost. Not only are housing voucher programs unreliable because they require multiple agencies to coordinate entry, but they also give landlords power over voucher holders that would be considered illegal if they were used against a nonvoucher renter household. Voucher holders have almost no way of pushing back against landlords and shelter providers who unjustly evict them from their home.
Even so, the federal government has lined up hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to these landlords under the guise of ending homelessness. To be sure, vouchers are a necessary stopgap for some of the people who are lucky enough to get them, but they are a shoddy fix overall. To truly end homelessness, we need fully funded, high-quality public housing that protects privacy, encourages social bonds, and isn’t run like a prison — places where tenants can rebuild their lives without fear of slumlordism, eviction, or exploitation. As it stands, housing vouchers fall well short of the mark.