I always figured I'd return to the "Unprotected Minorities" series but I didn't think it would be like this. We've got a whole new form of discrimination that has recently entered the housing market. Renters are protected based on source of income in some cities and states including Chicago, but those laws weren't written for people with normal jobs. They weren't written for doctors or bartenders or hairdressers, but those workers are now seeing their rental applications denied by landlords all over the world. So today's article is for you.
Note: I expect this article will become a matter of historic amusement within about 18 months. If you're reading this in 2021 or later, hopefully you can look back and laugh, but please don't take this as advice anymore.
Which Professions are at Risk?
It used to be that landlords would look more at how much you're earning rather than where it comes from. They preferred earned income to passive income - students always had a hard time. In the post-COVID era, landlords are going to be looking more closely at your career choices. If you work in any of the following professions, expect to have a much harder time finding housing in the new market.
- Healthcare. Landlords don't want you bringing diseases into their property.
- High Volume Face-to-face work. Foodservice, Entertainment, Transit. Same problem as the healthcare workers.
- Non-essential workers. If your place of employment is subject to government shutdowns, landlords don't want you.
- Remote workers. Landlords have always been leery of tenants who are home all the time. With more jobs moving to remote work, office workers are going to face some resistance in their housing searches.
Don't Rely on Fair Housing Laws
Source of Income protections within fair housing were created originally to protect Section 8 voucher holders. The phrase "source of income" was used as a euphemism for "Section 8" to make the laws more palatable to the more conservative constituencies. "See, we're not just protecting the poor, we're protecting everyone!" So the protections where they exist are on the books as "source of income" but in most cases have never been tested in court for applicability to discrimination cases beyond the realm of Section 8. There might have been a few cases where the tenant was denied housing because they are supported by alimony. I could find no search results at all for source of income lawsuits once I removed the phrase "Section 8" from my query. So even if you live in an area where you're technically protected by law, if you try to enforce it you're heading into uncharted territory.
But for renters in about 2/3 of the country there are no source of income protections at all."Prohibiting Discrimination Against Renters Using Housing Vouchers Improves Results, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Iowa's currently even considering going in the other direction, and prohibiting every city within the state from enacting source of income-based protections for renters, with legislators arguing that landlords should have the right to deny housing to voucher holders.Iowa Senate Bill would allow landlords to refuse leases based on income sources, Iowa State Daily I somehow doubt that discussions about landlords having the right to deny housing to doctors and lawyers have really factored into their debates, although that may change rapidly.
Tips for Housing Searches
Disclose your job up front. If you're looking for housing as an employee in any of the "poisoned professions", you need to approach it the same way that Section 8 voucher holders do. Ask if the landlord accepts workers in your profession within the first few seconds of your initial conversation. Do it before you book the showing. Do it before you ask about the features of the property.
Get a cosigner. This applies only to non-essential workers where continued cash flow is the problem rather than behavior or contagion. Find someone to guarantee your rent payments in the case that you default. You might have thought that you were past the point of needing a cosigner when you finished college, but then we all thought that we'd be able to go to baseball games this summer too.
Go under the radar. I am rarely one to encourage living in an apartment off-lease. But in the current environment, crashing with a friend for a bit until everything blows over and people calm down might be the best option. Evictions for non-payment are going to be absorbing the entire focus of the court system after things reopen. Evictions for behavior such as illegal extra roommates will take much longer. By the time they get around to it you'll probably already have moved on to a better situation.
Look for Agent-owned properties. In Illinois at least, licensed real estate agents must disclose when they are listing their own properties. As they work in a profession that is equally heavy in terms of face-to-face interaction, they are likely to be more tolerant of workers in similar industries.
Look for professionally-managed properties. Owner-managers are far more likely to scrutinize every rental application they receive and react from an emotional place when they see your career on the form. Landlords who have outsourced the job of renting out their properties to third-party managers aren't likely to care as much, provided that the manager somehow gets the rent out of you.
Look close to work. Zoning will work in your favor here. If you work in healthcare, look near hospitals. If you work in the service industry, look in areas with a busy nightlife. Landlords will be more accustomed to dealing with others in your line of work.
Look in business districts. Developers were tossing up thousands of new high rise apartment buildings in downtown Chicago during the years prior to the pandemic. But office workers who have grown accustomed to working at home will be looking to move out into the suburbs, leaving a lot of those brand new apartments sitting empty.
Consider commercial property. If you think the residential market has gotten weird lately, the commercial rental market is even more bizarre. With businesses closing left and right there are going to be a lot of empty offices and storefronts around. If you're considering renting an empty commercial space, bear a few things in mind. Don't do it if you have kids, as there are no lead paint restrictions for commercial property like there are for residential buildings. Don't expect the same safety provisions such as fire escapes and pest prevention devices. Don't expect a full working kitchen. This is really only a solution for truly desperate circumstances and renters without super picky wish lists.
Offer to do your own maintenance. If the landlord is worried about entering the property because you might be infected, eliminating that part of their job might be enough to get them off of the fence. Tell them you'll handle the labor of most repairs provided that they handle the cost of materials. Of course you need to be relatively handy with tools to be able to pull this one off successfully, but if you've got the skills it just might work.
Buy cooperatively. A lot of landlords are going to be defaulting on their own payments in the near future. It may actually be easier for you to go in with some friends in the same situation and buy an apartment building to live in together rather than to find a landlord that will accept you.
Counteracting the knee-jerk reactions of frightened landlords is going to take some creative and potentially extreme measures. We are headed into uncharted territory. The western world has not dealt with a pandemic of this scale since before the start of airplane travel. If you absolutely need to find housing now and are running into brick walls because of your job, remember that this situation is temporary. Whatever you find only has to last until people calm down. The housing market has been through similar global emotional crises. September 11 was just as tough on the industry, although in a different way.
In the U.S. there is no general "right to housing." There is only a "right to shelter," and even that is only existent in a few states. While this isn't necessarily the best attitude, remembering this is a search for shelter rather than for housing may make your few options easier to stomach.
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