SUMMIT, NJ - Time is running out for Ada Lopez.

Ada has always been an attentive mother to her two teen-aged daughters and a hard worker—until recently, she held two jobs to support her family. But last year she became sick and unable to work. When she couldn’t meet her bills, she lost her apartment, eventually finding shelter at Summit-based Family Promise’s Union County Program (FPUC). 

While in the program, she was approved for a Section 8 voucher. According to HUD.gov, the housing choice voucher program -- often referred to as 'Section 8' -- is the federal government's major program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market. Since housing assistance is provided on behalf of the family or individual, participants are able to find their own housing, including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments.

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The participant is free to choose any housing that meets the requirements of the program and is not limited to units located in subsidized housing projects.

Housing choice vouchers are administered locally by public housing agencies (PHAs). The PHAs receive federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to administer the voucher program.

A family that is issued a housing voucher is responsible for finding a suitable housing unit of the family's choice where the owner agrees to rent under the program. This unit may include the family's present residence. Rental units must meet minimum standards of health and safety, as determined by the PHA.

A housing subsidy is paid to the landlord directly by the PHA on behalf of the participating family. The family then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program. Under certain circumstances, if authorized by the PHA, a family may use its voucher to purchase a modest home.

Ada assumed the voucher would be the key to helping her find a new place to live. After all, she’s had a long history of employment. She’s never received cash assistance or welfare. She’s never had any trouble with the law. 

But she has discovered that finding a home is not so simple. Since she began looking for a new place to live, she has been unable to find a landlord willing to rent to her. Despite the fact that she can afford subsidized housing, an eviction from years ago that is still on her record, coupled with her current difficulties, has caused Ada’s name to show up on tenant screening reports, effectively blacklisting her from signing a new lease. 

Ada, accompanied by FPUC Executive Director Geleen Donovan, got the chance to tell her story to U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) when he met recently with housing advocates and tenants to discuss legislation he is introducing to address the issue of tenant 'blacklisting' -- landlords using credit reports from third-party reporting agencies as a legal means to discriminate against potential tenants.

These screening agencies are largely unregulated under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and, as such, lack restrictions that would ensure their fairness and accuracy. Not only would the bill prevent agencies from reporting on issues that are more than three years old, it also protects tenants living in homes with health and safety issues who have legally withheld rent to force their landlords to make the necessary repairs. Currently, even if a tenant prevails against their landlord in a court of law, they are often still added to these screening reports and find themselves blackballed by prospective landlords.

“I got the voucher but now I can’t find an apartment. No one will rent to me,” said Lopez, whose voucher expires August 15.

“Under no circumstance should a tenant fear discrimination for simply standing up for their right to safe and sustainable housing,” said Booker, who is hoping to find Republicans to co-sponsor his bill in Congress. “For far too long, landlords could utilize tenant-screening reports as a means to target low-income tenants and prevent access to quality and affordable housing. This bill takes important steps to reform tenant-screening practices by preventing landlords from unfairly penalizing tenants and providing tenants the necessary protections to ensure a fair and equitable screening process.”

Claas Ehlers, President of Family Promise, spoke of the need for tenant protections. “This legislation would be a major victory for low-income renters like the many families we serve, who are faced with an extremely limited number of housing options. It simply asks that people be treated fairly and holds the companies that profit off of low-income renters accountable. We believe this will have a significant impact in giving more families and individuals the opportunity for adequate and sustainable housing they deserve. We applaud Senator Booker for leading this effort.”

Family Promise Union County’s Donovan, who works with families like Ada’s on a daily basis, is a staunch defender of the legislation.

“Most of the families entering our shelter program are there due to unforeseen circumstances, such as illness, the loss of a job, or the loss of reliable transportation. The recent proliferation of tenant screening companies has made access to housing even more difficult. The companies advise landlords not to rent to anyone who has had an eviction in their past—whether or not there was a judgment, and regardless of how many years ago it took place,” she said.  “Our families are not high-risk tenants; they work hard to rebuild their lives and this bill will provide the relief necessary to secure housing.”