This is the first in a series about tenants who have faced discrimination because of their source of income. With Austin’s new source of income protection ordinance threatened in the courts and the state legislature, these are the personal stories behind the fight to protect housing choice voucher holders.
When she received the news, Latorie Duncan had only a month to figure out a future for herself and her son. Her landlord had filed for bankruptcy, forcing Duncan out of the home she’d lived in for seven years. She found herself in the same situation as so many Section 8 renters in Austin: discriminated against because of her source of income, and unable to find a place to live.
“I was a good tenant. I would have never moved if I didn’t have to,” says Duncan, an African-American single mother who contacted landlords all over the city looking for new housing. “I was pretty much pleading, ‘can you please help me?’”
Duncan’s son has autism, and was getting ready to start fifth grade. She didn’t want to have to leave the community he grew up in and was comfortable with, or take him away from his school and his friends.
But after she was evicted and moved in with her mother, Duncan couldn’t seem to find any landlords near her Colony Park neighborhood in northeast Austin who accepted Section 8 tenants.
She says she was surprised that a traditionally African-American neighborhood offered so little Section 8 housing. Duncan has friends from the same part of town who were pushed out of their Section 8 housing around the same time. She spoke with landlord after landlord who told her they wouldn’t rent accept housing choice vouchers because they didn’t want to undergo the mandatory inspection, or because they feared the damage tenants might do to their property.
Eventually, even after several extensions of her Section 8 funding, she was only two weeks away from losing her vouchers for good.
“I ended up having a panic attack,” Duncan remembers. “You go through the stress to find a house, take care of your children at the same time, be a happy mother. That’s the hardest part – the stress and then the thought of, ‘what if I don’t find a place? Where am I going to be?’ It’s a lot of pressure, going through that.”
In December, the Austin City Council unanimously passed source of income protection in response to the situation Duncan faced. Ninety-one percent of landlords in Austin refused to accept Section 8 tenants, forcing thousands of people into the same frantic scramble for limited housing that Duncan went through.
The new city ordinance prohibits properties from excluding anyone based on their source of income, just as it’s illegal to bar a tenant because of their race, sexual orientation, age or other protected status. Duncan spoke before the Council on the day the ordinance was approved, adding her story to the public record of discrimination.
But now the Austin Apartment Association is challenging source of income protection, sponsoring both a lawsuit against the City of Austin and bills in the state legislature that would ban any Texas city from enacting such an ordinance. Duncan says the relief she experienced after the City Council’s vote has given way to disappointment.
“The fight’s never over. Some people just don’t understand. There’s not empathy there,” Duncan says of the Apartment Association’s stance.
Because while her own story has a happy ending, Duncan knows many people who are still searching for housing. Two weeks away from losing her vouchers, Duncan finally found Accessible Housing Austin! (AHA!), a non-profit housing provider that accepts Section 8.
She and her son were able to move into a house on a nice street in northwest Austin. Adjusting to a new school and a new neighborhood has been a challenge, but they’re grateful – and Duncan knows she’s fortunate.
“Two friends of mine are looking for a place now, on Section 8. And it’s the same story; they say ‘I’m at my last 30 days to find a place or I lose my voucher,’” she says. Her friends have asked her if there are any places available in Duncan’s new neighborhood. “But I’ve called around and none of them take Section 8 over here. It’s like, okay, this is real. It’s hard for a lot of people. It’s really hard.”