Breaking News
More () »

'It made me feel demeaned' | St. Louis woman wrongly denied apartment because of Section 8 voucher

Despite an existing law in the city designed to protect voucher holders, discriminatory housing practices remain a problem in-person, online.

ST. LOUIS — It's one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in all of St. Louis.

There's dining, shopping, nightlife and much more.

So, it's no wonder Terrise Phoenix was interested in relocating to the Central West End.

"Everything is close. Restaurants, grocery stores, the hospital," she told 5 On Your Side.

But instead of rolling out the welcome mat on her new place, Phoenix said she was shown the door.

"I was shocked because I wasn't sure if she realized she was practicing discrimination," Phoenix said.

In July, Phoenix fell in love with an apartment located in a two-story residential building at the corner of Maryland and Taylor.

"The property had everything I was looking for and it was at a cheaper rate," she said.

There was just one major problem.

Terrise said the property owner's real estate agent refused to work with her after she revealed she'd be using a federal housing choice voucher.

Formally known as "Section 8," housing choice vouchers are one of the most common ways the federal government uses our tax dollars.

They're designed to help millions of low-income families and the elderly move to find safe, affordable housing in the private sector.

Phoenix said after taking a tour of the apartment and discussing how she'd need to partially pay her rent, the agent said a voucher wouldn't be accepted.

"She gave me this long excuse about why it would be a big burden to go through inspections," she recalled about the encounter.

Phoenix felt defeated and embarrassed.

"It made me feel very belittled as well, like I wasn't equal. There was no sense of equity in the situation at all," she said.

READ ALSO: These parents had no clue they were living in a former meth lab, now the mom-to-be has tested positive for meth

In the City of St. Louis, what happened to Phoenix in this situation is against the law.

That's because in 2015, your source of income became a protected class thanks to ordinance No. 69953 that was originally sponsored by 6th Ward Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia.

It means you can't be discriminated against for how you pay your bills and rent, so long as the source of income is from legal means. 

It's just like your race, religion and disability status are protected under the law.

The ordinance also means landlords, property owners and real estate agents can't say or advertise they won't accept a federal housing voucher.

But discrimination is happening anyway both in-person and online, despite the law.

"I do think it's largely a lack of knowledge. There are no training requirements, education requirements or certification requirements to be a landlord in the City of St. Louis," said Sam Stragand.

Stragand is an attorney who's tracked this problem for the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, a private fair housing non-profit working to end discrimination across the bi-state.

Stragand said EHOC alone has identified more than 100 rental ads in the city that clearly discriminate against Section 8 recipients on websites like Zillow, HotPads and Craigslist.

"The vast majority of them were in the central corridor and south city," he said.

And whether it's intended or not by the landlords and property managers, Stragand asserted the people who are being hurt the most by this practice are black.

"I'm sure some of those people (landlords) are doing it out of purely innocent reasons, but I'm sure at the other end of it are people who are targeted," he said.

READ ALSO: Sleeping on the job? St. Louis police officer facing investigation after photo surfaces

Stragand asserted that EHOC would like to see the city put more resources into enforcement.

So, the I-Team went straight to the city agency that's responsible for spotting and stopping discriminatory practices, the Civil Rights Enforcement Agency.

Of the nearly 7,000 people in the city who rely on a housing voucher, executive director Charles Bryson said he only knows of four complaints specific to source-of-income discrimination.

He said some voucher holders may not know about the law or file a complaint because of the time constraints they're facing. Section 8 tenants only get four months to secure new housing and often their options are limited.

Bryson also said the city's never fined or taken a landlord or property manager to court over source-of-income violations.

Under the ordinance, the maximum penalty the city could assess per violation is $500.

Bryson defended his approach to enforcement. 

"The fine is a court case," he said. "So you have to go win a court case. I could go around and slap people with fines, but they are 'one-off's'. I'd rather convince you as a property owner, landlord of the benefits of the Section 8 program."

He said CREA's limited time and resources are better spent on educating landlords and those who violate the ordinance when discrimination comes to their attention.

"If I ask you to change something and you change it, then why am I taking you to court," Bryson said. "For us, we'd rather make that phone call, do that e-mail and say make this change. We'd like to see it done in the next 24-48 hours."

5 On Your Side has asked Bryson for the total number of times CREA has reached out to a landlord asking them to change an ad and how many times the ads were changed, but he hasn't responded yet.

The city has, however, sent letters to the CEOs of Craigslist and Zillow, asking for them to block ads in the City of St. Louis that say "no Section 8."

Bryson told 5 On Your Side the city has sent approximately 15 letters to landlords and 11 to property owners. Additionally, he said the city's sent about 400 letters to landlords/property owners on its nuisance property list.

He also said they've had some cooperation from local real estate firms who've been notified of discriminatory ads.

But for Terrise Phoenix, that's not enough.

She believes there should be more accountability built into the law that's supposed to protect her, but instead left her looking for a place to call home.

"I wanted to share my story because I know I'm not the only one who's been affected. It's becoming more and more difficult to find housing," she said.

Phoenix told 5 On Your Side she eventually found a new apartment, but outside the city.

St. Louis joins about a dozen states and more than 50 other cities with source-of-income protections. 

Clayton is one of the most recent cities to join that list. St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy previously sponsored a bill to introduce source-of-income protections that would've only applied to the unincorporated parts of the county, but later pulled it from consideration.

5 On Your Side reached out to a number of landlords and property managers with ads in the city that violate the Section 8 protections.

Some said they had no idea about the law and agreed to change their ads.

Others blasted the federal program, saying that the additional inspection that's required is inconvenient.

However, when St. Louis passed the source of income discrimination ban in 2015, it also got rid of extra city inspections for section 8 landlords to make it easier for them to comply.

They do still have to go through an inspection by local housing authorities, which is free.

More local news:

RELATED: Police send warning after hidden skimmers found at Hazelwood gas station

RELATED: Do you have the perfect name for St. Louis' MLS team? The owners want to hear it

Before You Leave, Check This Out