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George Vonesh drives an hour round trip each day to visit his grandson, Justin.

Justin is a kind, caring, nonjudgmental young man, says his grandfather. He keeps up on the news and likes to discuss current events. In his free time, Justin enjoys music, concerts and paranormal television shows.

He also lives with intellectual disabilities, which have impacted him since childhood. Yet, at 32 years old, Justin lives on his own in an apartment in Lafayette. 

As Justin’s primary companion and caregiver, Vonesh has spent much of his life memorizing the ins and outs of programs and services that many adults with disabilities rely on — from Medicaid to food assistance programs, to housing choice vouchers and more.

“It’s taken me years to learn all this stuff,” Vonesh said.

At age 79, he is starting to worry about how he can sustainably support his grandson. The distance from Arvada — where Vonesh lives — to Lafayette is feeling more and more challenging to travel as the years go by.

He wants to move Justin closer, but for months he’s faced hurdle after hurdle. Despite all his research, paperwork, phone calls, meetings and more paperwork, Vonesh hasn’t been able to find an apartment that will work.

The problem comes down to what’s commonly called a housing choice voucher.

Justin received a voucher in 2018, about a year and a half after applying for the rent subsidization program. He was luckier than many, as some people wait on lists for years — sometimes more than a decade — before being selected for the program that’s part of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

The program, sometimes known as Section 8, aims “to help very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled afford decent, safe and sanitary housing,” according to HUD.

Justin is both low-income and disabled in the eyes of the government. His income was about $800 per month — less than 7% of the area median income in his county — when he applied for a voucher. This money came from a monthly stipend for people with disabilities, called Supplemental Security Income.

Since then, however, Vonesh has learned that a voucher is not a guaranteed ticket to housing.

“It’s not easy,” he said, gesturing at a pile of paperwork full of handwritten notes and math problems. “Even now, with all this homework that I have, I still am never quite sure about all the exact steps.”

Through his deep dive into the program and its many intricacies, Vonesh has uncovered a system with pitfalls at every turn. Sometimes, these challenges come from administrative complexities of the program. Other times, they are rooted in discrimination.

As Vonesh has worked tirelessly to find a home for his grandson, housing advocates have taken steps to strengthen laws meant to protect people like Justin.

A new law on this front, which goes into effect this month, has resulted in resistance from Colorado landlords. While they concede that people with housing vouchers can struggle to find a place, they say the problem should be addressed by making the program more economically attractive — not mandating how landlords interact with it.

[cqmedia layout=”panel” content=”eyJwaG90byI6W3sibWVkaWFfdHlwZSI6InBob3RvIiwicGhvdG9faWQiOiIzMzA4NDUiLCJwaG90b19jYXB0aW9uIjoiIiwicGhvdG9fY3JlZGl0IjoiIn1dLCJ2aWRlbyI6W10sImZpbGUiOltdfQ==”]George Vonesh rifles through a stack of papers that he has collected over the years, which outline the rules and regulations of Justin’s many assistance programs. Photo by Nina Joss.

Moving Justin closer

Vonesh has been living in the same Arvada home for over 50 years. Since his wife passed away a few years ago, he divides his time between taking care of his dog, Jasper, and his grandson.

“Jasper in the morning, Justin in the afternoon,” he said.

Justin’s disabilities, which impact his social interactions, have made it challenging for him to make friends over the years. Vonesh said that causes Justin to be sad sometimes, making the daily visits even more important.

“If I don’t go up there, he’s just by himself,” he said.

As Vonesh gets older, the long drive is becoming more challenging.

“It’s hard on me,” he said. “I’m getting old and that traffic is dangerous … so I’d like to get him closer. Otherwise, I’m telling him, we’re just gonna have to figure out some days a week that I take off.”

But Vonesh has had little luck since he began searching for a closer apartment eight months ago. Because Justin has a voucher, moving is a complicated process that involves a staggering number of considerations.

First, prospective apartments need to qualify under a payment standard set by HUD. That means the unit, plus utilities, has to be at or under a specific price.

Once Vonesh finds an apartment at the correct rate in a desired area, there has to be a vacancy that lines up with the end of Justin’s current lease. He also has to add time for a federally mandated inspection of the unit.

If the new apartment is in a different county, Vonesh would need to transfer Justin’s rental subsidy across housing authority lines. The process is possible, but it adds extra steps that take time. In a fast-paced rental market where landlords want tenants confirmed as quickly as possible, the timeline of these extra steps can complicate options.

Add those requirements to the personal desires any person may have for an apartment — like in-unit laundry or a place to sit outside — and Vonesh has a puzzle on his hands.

It is a puzzle that gets more challenging when some landlords, Vonesh says, won’t even take a glance at Justin’s application.

“I have lost count of the apartment managers who told (me) that they don’t accept (vouchers)” since Justin got a voucher in 2018, Vonesh said. “They don’t want to deal with the bureaucracy and perceived problems with low-income renters.”

[cqmedia layout=”panel” content=”eyJwaG90byI6W3sibWVkaWFfdHlwZSI6InBob3RvIiwicGhvdG9faWQiOiIzMzA4NDYiLCJwaG90b19jYXB0aW9uIjoiIiwicGhvdG9fY3JlZGl0IjoiIn1dLCJ2aWRlbyI6W10sImZpbGUiOltdfQ==”]The long drives from Arvada to Lafayette are becoming challenging for George Vonesh, who is 79 years old, to make every day to visit his grandson. Photo by Nina Joss.

Discrimination over source of income

The apartment managers who told Vonesh they wouldn’t accept housing choice vouchers — if they said so after January 2021 — could have been breaking the law.

That’s when House Bill 20-1332 took effect, outlawing housing discrimination based on a person’s source of income. The state law added this category to other protected classes including disability, race, color, creed, familial status and more.

In practice, this law means landlords in Colorado with more than three rental units must accept housing choice vouchers. They cannot use Justin’s federal aid as a reason to turn him away.

Despite facing this issue, Vonesh never filed a complaint with state officials. The process seemed cumbersome and time-consuming, and it was more important to him to put his time and energy toward finding Justin a home, he said.

Vonesh isn’t the only one concerned that landlords discriminate in this way. Housing advocates across the metro area say they’ve seen evidence of housing discrimination based on source of income.

“Complaints about housing vouchers — and landlords refusing to accept them or refusing to count the value of the voucher — is the number three source of complaint that we received (in the past 18 months),” said John Paul Marosy, outreach and education coordinator at the Denver Metro Fair Housing Center.

The center is a private nonprofit organization that works to investigate matters related to housing discrimination across the metro region.

Although there may be some bad actors, Marosy noted that most discrimination against voucher holders comes from landlords who are unaware of the law.

“From our experience, the vast majority of landlords don’t intentionally discriminate in this way,” he said. “But it is incumbent on them to educate themselves.”

In a few cases, discrimination against voucher holders is outright. But more commonly, landlords create barriers for voucher holders without doing anything that appears to break the law, advocates say.

One of these barriers is the minimum income requirement. This is when a landlord requires a potential tenant to prove they make a certain ratio of income to rent.

Vonesh ran into this problem recently when he was checking out an apartment in Arvada for Justin. Right as he started to think it might work out, the apartment manager shattered his plan.

“They said, ‘Oh, you know, we can take a voucher, sure — but you still have to prove three times (the rent in) income,’” Vonesh said.

With Justin’s income — all from federal aid — this requirement was impossible to meet.

The income barrier

Aubrey Wilde, advocacy program director at Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said income requirements are one of the biggest barriers for people with vouchers.

“We have folks with vouchers who technically should be able to use those vouchers, in most cases, being asked to prove that they earn three, four, five — even eight — times the rent amount in income,” Wilde said, recounting numbers from her and other advocates’ work with people searching for housing.

Jack Regenbogen, deputy executive director at the Colorado Poverty Law Project, said he and other advocates consider this behavior to be a form of discrimination.

“They’re not saying anymore, ‘We won’t accept Section 8,’ but they are discriminating based on the amount of income,” Regenbogen said.

Although many voucher holders can’t meet income requirements, Marosy from the Denver Metro Fair Housing Center said the voucher itself is a dependable sign that the tenant will be able to pay their rent each month.

“If you look at it from the landlord’s point of view, this is a guaranteed source of income,” he said. “They know for a fact that this individual has this voucher and that money will be there for months and months to come.”

But House Bill 20-1332 sets no limit to the income level a landlord can require. And for people with vouchers, there’s no clarity about whether a minimum income requirement applies to the whole rent, or just the portion of rent a voucher holder is paying out of pocket.

This legal blurriness has created a situation where landlords can reject a voucher holder for not making three or more times the full rent amount in income.

[cqmedia layout=”panel” content=”eyJwaG90byI6W3sibWVkaWFfdHlwZSI6InBob3RvIiwicGhvdG9faWQiOiIzMzA4NDQiLCJwaG90b19jYXB0aW9uIjoiIiwicGhvdG9fY3JlZGl0IjoiIn1dLCJ2aWRlbyI6W10sImZpbGUiOltdfQ==”]George Vonesh searches for apartments for his grandson from his desk in Arvada. Photo by Nina Joss.

A new law

Through months of lobbying and testifying, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Colorado Poverty Law Project worked with legislators on a new law this year, Senate Bill 23-184, that addresses the income requirement barrier for renters. It will go into effect in August.

“It caps the minimum income requirement at two times the cost of rent” for all rental transactions, Wilde said.

She said she hopes this new cap will allow voucher holders and other low-income renters get into higher quality housing and will prevent homelessness. 

The Colorado Apartment Association, a leading state group for landlords, was a vocal opponent of the bill. Spokesperson Drew Hamrick said the income requirement cap — which will allow people to spend 50% of their income on rent — will set tenants up for failure.

“Anyone signing a contract that they’re promising to pay that much of their income in rent is going to default under it,” he said. “No one can afford to do that.”

Hamrick said landlords do not care about the source of a tenant’s money — but they care that they get paid. 

In landlords’ eyes, he said, the housing voucher program adds the risk of additional expenses they might not be compensated for. These potential expenses include rent lost while officials inspect a unit to see if it meets federal standards. He added there are other risks, like the chance that a tenant might not be able to pay for repairing property damage.

Instead of mandating that landlords accept vouchers, Hamrick said, legislators should work to make the program more financially attractive for landlords.

He said the new cap is not a sustainable decision for rental housing providers, who will have to accept tenants more likely to default on rent. He added that more defaults could make rents rise across the market over time.

“The Colorado legislature has substituted their own business judgment for the judgment of the entire market and made a bad business decision here,” he said.

Regenbogen, from the Colorado Poverty Law Project, however, said he thinks people paying half their income on rent will still be able to make ends meet. Low-income people, he said, have always had to be resourceful — and housing is a necessity they deserve the opportunity to have.

“(Paying half of one’s income on rent is) not ideal, but what’s worse was the previous status quo where if people weren’t earning an arbitrary multiplier of what rent is, then they could very possibly find themselves either in the homeless shelter or on the street,” he said.

He added that the new number reflects a reality in Colorado — where more than half of households are rent-burdened, meaning they are paying more than the recommended 30% of their income on rent, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

For people with vouchers, the new law also clarifies that minimum income requirements must only apply to the portion of rent the tenant pays out of pocket.

In addition, it prohibits landlords from considering the credit score of an applicant who is on a voucher. Wilde said credit, like the minimum income requirement, has historically been a barrier for voucher holders in finding housing.

[cqmedia layout=”panel” content=”eyJwaG90byI6W3sibWVkaWFfdHlwZSI6InBob3RvIiwicGhvdG9faWQiOiIzMzA4NDgiLCJwaG90b19jYXB0aW9uIjoiIiwicGhvdG9fY3JlZGl0IjoiIn1dLCJ2aWRlbyI6W10sImZpbGUiOltdfQ==”]George Vonesh sits with his dog, Jasper, outside of his home in Arvada. Photo by Nina Joss.

Hope for Justin

Vonesh said the new law is good for people at low income levels like Justin.

Since voucher holders generally pay 30% to 40% of their income on rent, the vast majority will now always qualify in terms of income.

“I think (the law) will have a fairly significant positive impact,” Vonesh said, reflecting on the times Justin has been turned down on the grounds of income. “That new provision, I think, takes that off the table.”

Vonesh said the more he knows and understands the laws, the more he is feeling prepared and empowered going into conversations with apartment managers.

“I was just waiting for them to say ‘We don’t accept vouchers,’” he said, describing one recent meeting. “I was ready to pull out my printed-out copies of the statutes that are all highlighted.”

But people who don’t know their rights don’t have that opportunity to stick up for themselves, he said.

To help educate more tenants and landlords on the rights and rules related to housing discrimination, the Denver Metro Fair Housing Center launched a campaign in April about source-of-income discrimination.

“Most prejudice is rooted in the lack of knowledge,” Marosy said. “We’re optimistic that as we get more knowledge out about the voucher program, we’ll see a decrease in the discrimination that we’ve been seeing against voucher holders.”

As months have gone by, laws have been passed and Vonesh has gotten help, he has maintained hope for Justin — but it hasn’t been easy.

With the number of apartments that have not worked out for his grandson, Vonesh was hesitant to say one law would fix the whole process.

“I think some of these folks can be pretty creative if they really don’t want to accept vouchers,” he said.

But the new law is a step forward, he said.

Armed with his stack of papers and knowledge of his rights, Vonesh is dedicated to continue trying — for the sake of himself, for the sake of Justin and for the sake of other Coloradans who have struggled to put a roof over their heads.