Virginia lawmakers vote to prohibit landlords from refusing Section 8 vouchers

The John Marshall Hotel building in Downtown Richmond now contains apartment housing. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Landlords who lease more than four units will no longer be allowed to refuse prospective tenants solely because they rely on government subsidies to pay their rent under legislation that has now cleared both chambers of the General Assembly.

Advocates say the bill will open a range of quality housing options for low-income tenants who are currently limited by many landlords’ decision not to participate in the Section 8 Housing Assistance Program.

“So often, voucher holders have to go to places that are less desirable,” said Christie Marra, who advocated for the legislation on behalf of the Virginia Poverty Law Center. Under the new law, she said, “As long as they can afford it with their voucher, they can live there.”

Proposed by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, the legislation would ban any landlord who leases more than four units from refusing to rent to tenants solely because they pay with a voucher. Bourne said the law wouldn’t force landlords to accept tenants with vouchers if they didn’t meet other screening standards the landlord applies, such as a credit check.

Under the program, tenants typically pay a third of their income toward rent and the government pays the difference. For an apartment or house to be eligible for subsidy, total rent can’t exceed a federally-established fair market value for the specific metro area or county. In Virginia, that rate ranges from $676 for a one-bedroom apartment in Lynchburg to $1,500 in Northern Virginia.

The Virginia Apartment Management Association opposed the measure, arguing it would unfairly force landlords to enter into contracts with the government to participate in a program that they say is inconsistently administered by sometimes dysfunctional local housing authorities.

Some Republicans echoed those concerns in floor debates. “There’s no other area of the law where a private business is compelled into a contractual relationship with the government,” argued Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach.

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, called those arguments overblown. The Senate amended the legislation to limit any delays related to bureaucratic approval by setting a 15-day window for a local housing authority to approve a voucher. “It merely prevents discrimination because of the voucher,” she said.

The legislation won modest bi-partisan support in both chambers, passing the House last month on a 61-37 vote and passing the Senate on Tuesday 25-15.

Because the Senate amended the bill, it still needs to go back to the House for another vote, but Bourne said he has no issues with the change and doesn’t expect it to be a barrier to the bill’s final passage. The bill also must be signed by the governor to become law.