By Cheryl Bellisario
Affordable housing and houselessness are critical issues that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Matthew Ua, who was born and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, has a unique perspective on these issues, as a Native Hawaiian, a private landlord, and a housing locator for HOPE Services Hawaiʻi, a nonprofit in Hilo that assists those experiencing houselessness and those at imminent risk.
Ua assists individuals transitioning out of houselessness and matches them with landlords in the community, providing support to both landlords and tenants. Many of the potential tenants he works with receive help through housing assistance programs, such as the federal Section 8 program that provides a voucher for rental assistance matched to a private rental unit.
Despite the assistance that programs like Section 8 provide in addressing homelessness and housing affordability, Ua is concerned. “Many landlords turn away applicants participating in these programs,” he explained. “It’s not unusual to see rental advertisements that explicitly state, ‘no vouchers’ or ‘no section 8.’”
With the federal CDC eviction moratorium scheduled to end in early October, Ua worries that few landlords are willing to open their units at a time when many people may be displaced.
To address this bias, Ua, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and a coalition of other housing advocates and homeless service providers testified during the 2021 legislative session on four different bills designed to prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to someone based solely on their participation in Section 8 or similar programs.
The practice of refusing to rent to those receiving assistance is known as ‘source of income discrimination.’ Although all four bills failed to pass in 2021, they will carry over for consideration in 2022.
As a landlord, Ua is familiar with ‘source of income discrimination’ and in the past made similar assumptions about potential renters receiving Section 8 vouchers. “Like other landlords, I thought that these tenants would not take care of the rental unit or make their payments,” he said.
That is until his wife’s uncle challenged his thinking asking him, “Why would you do that? They’re just like us . . . that’s not how local people do it.”
It was a turning point for Ua. Today, he and his wife accept applications from any prospective tenant because he now understands that a successful landlord-tenant pairing is more about respect and communication, not where the rent money comes from.
Looking forward to the 2022 legislative session, Ua along with a network of statewide advocates, will continue to promote policies to address source of income discrimination, as well as efforts to encourage new landlords to step forward. Agencies including HOPE Services Hawaiʻi, the Institute for Human Services, and Partners in Care, have been meeting with community groups including Hawaiian Civic Clubs, Lions Clubs, and churches to discuss the need for landlord engagement and to address potential biases.
Ua notes that it only takes a few unfortunate stories to get circulated about people with housing vouchers behaving badly to create a stereotype, but the reality is that income or voucher status does not determine whether a tenant will cause problems for a landlord.
“I’ve had tenants with high credit ratings and exceptional rental references, that did more damage in six months than any Section 8 applicant that I’ve had,” said Ua. “It doesn’t matter about the funding. It matters on the person.”
The message that Ua and other advocates stress is that providing people with Section 8 vouchers a place to live not only makes good business sense for landlords due to the stability of rental payments, it also pays itself forward by providing stable housing to the most vulnerable in our community.
“If you don’t have housing, you can’t figure anything else out because you’re always worried about where you’re going to sleep,” said Ua of the clients he works with. “When you give them shelter, you’d be surprised at how open their mind gets and the possibilities at that point just start climbing for them.”
To learn more about the need for local landlords and source of income discrimination policies, including how to request a speaker for a community group, visit homelessness.hawaii.gov/landlord-engagement/.
Cheryl Bellisario is the administrative assistant for the Office of the Governor’s Coordinator on Homelessness, focusing primarily on policy and advocacy. She has also worked for a state legislator on Hawaiʻi Island, and for several local nonprofits. Cheryl has a BA in international relations from Hawaii Pacific University, a master’s degree in human rights from the School of Advanced Study within the University of London and is working toward a second master’s degree in public administration at UH Mānoa.