The Atlanta City Council approved a proposal requiring publicly subsidized rental complexes to accept Section 8 vouchers on Monday. Experts said it’s a welcome step toward stopping housing discrimination against poor people, but warned it lacks enforcement provisions.

The non-binding resolution calls on local government agencies to include caveats in financing deals with developers that require any beneficiaries of tax breaks or other public subsidies to accept Section 8 housing vouchers for rent payments. 

The legislation flew through two council committees last week with backing from Invest Atlanta, the Atlanta Beltline, Atlanta Housing, MARTA, and the Fulton County Development Authority and is on track to be signed by Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens. 

The anti-discrimination resolution is “an important first step toward ensuring that families with vouchers can live in our communities,” Lindsey Siegel, who heads Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s housing advocacy program, told Atlanta Civic Circle, but the policy’s success “will depend on how the contract language is written”—and whether city agencies actually deploy it in development deals.

Landlords must already comply with myriad terms in city contracts, Siegel said, so the onus is on city of Atlanta and Fulton agencies to fine-tune future development deals to make more units available to Section 8 renters. 

The legislation, spearheaded by City Councilmember Liliana Bakhitiari, also lacks enforcement mechanisms, Georgia State University sociology professor Dierdre Oakley said in an interview. 

“There’s not going to be any kind of accountability at first,” she said. What’s to stop landlords from turning away a Section 8 voucher recipient for, say, a poor credit score, or because they don’t make enough money to pay a security deposit plus first and last month’s rent?

“Symbolically, [the policy] is great,” Oakley said. “But where is the oversight?”

For Atlanta-subsidized landlords who flout the resolution and continue to discriminate against Section 8 voucher-holders, GSU urban studies professor Dan Immergluck suggested harsh penalties, including “clawbacks” of the benefits they receive.

“This is essentially a fine that would be proportional to the size of the subsidy,” he said. “Eliminating recipients from future subsidy is also good, though a bit trickier to enforce, as firms can create affiliate entities.”

Georgia law is another obstacle to the Atlanta’s anti-discrimination efforts, because it prohibits local governments from legislating fair housing laws that are broader than the state’s—and the state does not bar discrimination against renters based on source of income.

“The laws at the state in some ways mean legislation passed at the local level doesn’t mean a lot,” Oakley said.  

Passing fair housing protections at the state level is doable—but easier said than done—Immergluck said, despite Georgia’s Republican-controlled and landlord-friendly legislature.

He pointed out that Virginia, whose state government also leans right, in 2020 ratified bills making source-of-income discrimination illegal. 

Perhaps Georgia could learn from that progress, he said, but “it will take organizing and greater power than tenants have right now.” 

Atlanta’s new policy is heartening for affordable housing activism, Oakley said, even if it’s unclear how much recourse the city will actually have against publicly subsidized developers who discriminate against Section 8 renters. 

“The fact that this resolution has gone through means it’s not only people like us [academics] who are worried about the housing crisis,” she said.

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