Housing advocates seek 'freedom of choice and equality' in Naperville

What counts as a legal source of income for rental housing applications brought out some impassioned speeches about equality, opportunity and freedom from discrimination in Naperville.

The city council took up the topic Tuesday to consider whether federal Housing Choice Vouchers should count toward the income a tenant must show to be approved for a rental agreement.

Some say defining income to include vouchers would improve fair housing practices, while others question what problem the change would solve because Naperville already houses about 18 percent of voucher holders in DuPage County, while making up about 10 percent of the county's total population.

Allowing vouchers to count as income would prevent discrimination that now is able to occur by prohibiting landlords from denying voucher holders on that basis alone, city staff members said.

Landlords would not have to accept voucher-holding tenants if they don't meet other screening requirements for credit score, criminal history or references. They wouldn't need to make upgrades to a unit to ensure it meets federal housing quality standards or hold off on leasing an apartment to a regular-paying tenant - even if a voucher tenant already has applied. But they would need to give those using government assistance a fair chance.

"We want this city to be a place where everyone can find a home no matter what your background is," council member Becky Anderson said of Naperville, which she's seen grow in diversity since her childhood and a place where she wants to see even more in socioeconomic diversity in the future. "We've got to stop this discrimination no matter on what level it's happening."

Affordable housing advocates say veterans, seniors, people with disabilities or others who pass a criminal-background check and meet income requirements to receive a housing voucher struggle to find an apartment because some landlords refuse to accept the vouchers.

Anne Houghtaling, executive director of HOPE Fair Housing Center in West Chicago, and Kenneth Coles, executive director of housing authorities in DuPage and Kendall counties, said it's nearly impossible to to track exactly how many people have been turned down for an apartment because they have a voucher - a fact council member John Krummen said he wanted to help make up his mind.

But Houghtaling said the issue is not about quotas or numbers, it's about people. Voucher recipients should be given a fair shot to live in places such as Naperville, with high-performing schools and available jobs.

"For this program to succeed, it needs to be in an opportunity area for people to move on to the next level," Houghtaling said. "We're looking for freedom of choice and equality of housing options in Naperville."

Mayor Steve Chirico said the city already is doing much to provide housing to people using vouchers. There are 500 DuPage County voucher holders living in Naperville, renting units from 225 landlords who make up 15 percent of the 1,500 DuPage property owners who house voucher tenants. Chirico noted that's also a larger share than the 10 percent of the county's total population that lives in Naperville.

"It seems to me that relative to the field, we're doing an outstanding job now," Chirico said.

Council member Kevin Coyne said he worries that requiring landlords to review applications from voucher-holding tenants could lead to a mandate that they accept those tenants.

"The program is intended to be voluntary," Coyne said about housing vouchers. "But you essentially convert it into a compulsory program."

Coles said the change would not require acceptance; only a chance. Updating the city code to ensure landlords cannot immediately turn away voucher holders would help the city do even better at offering fair housing - something it has to certify that it does each year because it receives grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A final decision won't be made until at least Oct. 4, when the council is set to next discuss the topic.

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