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Study: Section 8 tenants restricted to just a few city neighborhoods

After she received a Section 8 voucher nearly three years ago, Pamela Fabian hoped to move back to Brookline, where she grew up and wanted her daughter to attend elementary school.

After all, Section 8 is known in federal parlance as a housing choice voucher. No matter where low-income families choose to move, the voucher keeps housing affordable by capping their share of rent to 30 percent of gross income so long as the total rent falls within a range set by the government for the local housing market. For example, the fair market rate for a two-bedroom space in 2007 is $748. But Fabian soon found that she didn't have much a choice at all.

The single mother and bartender says prospective landlords would show her apartments and everything would go well -- until she mentioned her Section 8 status.

"Everybody I talked to told me that they had a bad experience with Section 8," says Fabian, who thought taking her well-mannered child on interviews with landlords would make a difference. However, "they would still say no." Eventually, she found a two-bedroom place in nearby Beechview. "The first clean place I find I'll take it," she says.

City landlords can choose to accept the voucher as rent payment, or not, so experiences like Fabian's are common, according to the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh, a Strip District nonprofit that promotes equal housing opportunities. It's also an experience that housing advocates there are hoping to change.

Last week the partnership completed a preliminary study on what it calls "a skewed housing pattern" of voucher-holders across the city. Although only 2 percent of all occupied rental units in the city are taken up by voucher-holders, they are concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods. Three city neighborhoods -- Homewood, Larimer and Perry North -- see nearly a fifth of their rental units filled by Section 8 tenants.

"One of the reasons we got interested in working on the issue is that some neighborhoods have a high concentration but some do not," says Peter Harvey, the partnership's director.

Housing advocates like Harvey argue that the uneven distribution defeats the stated goal of the federal housing-voucher program, which is to break up the concentration of poverty commonplace in the conventional housing projects. They hope that these findings will help pave the way for a city ordinance that bans discrimination against tenants using Section 8 or other government sources of income to pay rent.

Eliminating income discrimination "can level the playing field and present a wider array of housing options," the study says. The study also gives a summary of cities and counties nationwide that have passed laws prohibiting this kind of discrimination. Cities such as Seattle, St. Louis, San Francisco and Chicago have such laws on the books. In Pennsylvania, State College in Centre County has passed a similar ordinance.

However, Jim Eichenlaub, director of government affairs for the Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, says that whether landlords accept vouchers is a matter of business practice. "They have the right to make those business decisions," Eichenlaub says. He suggests there may be more effective ways to find landlords who take vouchers than mandating them to do so, such as maintaining a database of landlords who welcome Section 8 tenants.

To bolster its case, the partnership has garnered testimonies from renters like Fabian and Patricia Wallace, of Spring Hill, to speak to the problems that discrimination could create.

When Wallace was trying to move out of her parents' house on the South Side with her two kids, she couldn't land a place until five months into her search -- and a week before her voucher was to expire.

"When I mentioned Section 8, it would be like a problem. It would go sour," says Wallace.

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