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Responding to the US and UK housing emergency

Housing and Homelessness Programme / Partner story

Image of Nailah Abdul-Mubdi provided by Unlock NYC

Kamilah Newton is a 28-year-old single mother of two. She lives in New York City and has been fighting unfair eviction orders and inadequate housing conditions for years. On a low wage, she has found it challenging to secure proper housing over the years, and between 2016 and 2022, she had to enter the NY shelter system twice. “[Housing] has always presented enormous challenges for me in a single-parent household, struggling through poverty and undergrad studies,” she said, in a public testimony at the Unlock NYC Serial Discriminators List press conference in October 2023.

Across the US, the main form of housing available to people on low incomes is private rented accommodation. The US Government issues housing vouchers that cover part of the rent, but in cities such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston, it can be difficult for people to find affordable homes in the private rented sector despite this. NY rents are notoriously high, and in recent years, this has been compounded by the cost-of-living crisis. Kamilah is only one of many thousands of people who repeatedly had their applications refused by landlords. “Landlords who discriminate against voucher holders extend their search by months or even years. By disrupting their journey to safe, permanent housing, these practices often keep families in unsafe living conditions, shelters, or on the brink of eviction,” says Ashley Eberhart, head of product from Unlock NYC. This not-for-profit organisation works to make the apartment search process in New York transparent, fair, and free from discrimination for everyone.

In 2022, Kamilah was forced to enter the shelter system for the second time in two years, along with her 9-year-old autistic son and her 3-year-old daughter who needs special education. Despite this challenging situation, Kamilah didn’t give up. Every time a landlord refused her dossier, she reported them to Unlock NYC.

One particular management company had been getting away with discrimination against holders of housing vouchers for a long time. Unlock NYC forwarded Kamilah’s report to the NYC Commission on Human Rights, which sent a strongly worded email. Kamilah was promptly given a viewing and then a lease for an apartment for her and her children. Not long after, she was accepted into Fordham Law School in Manhattan. “I believe that we will set a new standard,” she says, “and empower voucher holders everywhere, while condemning and deterring voucher discrimination once and for all.”

US landlords are required by law to accept housing vouchers, but in large cities in particular, they often turn away people who use housing vouchers. Unlock NYC uses technology to challenge this form of discrimination. It develops free mobile tools for prospective tenants that allow them to record phone calls and create a paper trail if landlords illegally turn them away for using housing vouchers. Unlock NYC then uses the data it collects to understand trends and support the development of policies that protect tenants. In 2023, Unlock NYC published a list detailing landlords who were allegedly repeatedly refusing rented accommodation to people with housing vouchers.

The Public Interest Law Center does similar work in Philadelphia to secure safe and stable housing rentals for people in neighbourhoods of their choice by litigating on their behalf. In 2022, in partnership with the Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania, it successfully settled a case against a landlord with over 70 properties. “As a result of the lawsuit, the landlord changed his policy to accept housing vouchers across all his properties in all neighbourhoods,” says Sari Bernstein, housing attorney at the Public Interest Law Center.

Oak supports organisations using other approaches to ensure that more people in the US get access to safe and secure homes. For example, the New York City Fund to End Youth and Family Homelessness makes direct cash payments to young people experiencing homelessness. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an American think tank that analyses the impact of federal and state government budget policies, looks for alternatives to housing vouchers that could support tenants. And, not-for-profit organisation Greater Boston Legal Services has filed a lawsuit seeking to improve access to housing for those on low incomes, and from communities impacted by racial injustice. It established that a national tenant screening provider used an algorithm that disproportionately gave low scores to Black and Hispanic rental applicants who use housing vouchers to pay the majority of their rent.

United Kingdom
Even for people who have a home, it can be difficult to persuade landlords and local authorities to maintain properties or make them accessible for communities with specific accessibility and affordability needs. In the UK, Inclusion London is a not-for-profit disability equality organisation run by and for Disabled people. It campaigns on a range of issues including campaigns for accessible and affordable housing and wider housing policy changes. Since 2021, it has developed a housing network that brings Deaf and Disabled people’s organisations together to understand housing issues and deliver housing law training and briefings on adapting homes for Deaf and Disabled people.

The Housing Network now has a place on the housing panel of the Greater London Authority (GLA), which is the regional authority for the city. This is significant, as the panel is made up of organisations from across London who meet with GLA decision-makers. Inclusion London is now raising the profile of disability-specific housing issues at a strategic level, and working with other housing campaigners in London.

Another organisation advocating for local authorities to improve their policies and practices is Friends, Families, and Travellers. This is the Traveller-led not-for-profit organisation working to support Gypsies, Roma people, and Travellers in the UK, providing a national helpline as well as local service delivery programmes. A key accommodation issue is the lack of site pitches, which means members of nomadic communities have little choice for where to stop to rest. As a result, families are at risk of not only eviction but falling foul of new laws. This makes it difficult to access water and sanitation, education, and healthcare. Friends, Families, and Travellers look at how local authorities can improve policy and practice to address systemic exclusion.

In 2023, the organisation won an eight-year long challenge to rescind a discriminatory definition of ‘Traveller’ in planning processes. This success means that many more Gypsies and Travellers will hopefully be included in local authority accommodation needs assessments.

Oak’s partners use various tactics to change and challenge the existing housing system so that it works better for tenants. As outlined above, these tactics include: creating technology that supports tenants to gain their rights; campaigning for policy change; and using strategic litigation. “Across the UK and US, our partners continue to work to lessen the impacts of the housing emergency for people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity,” says Paul Wishart, acting director of the Housing and Homelessness Programme. “Their achievements, particularly in the last year, are inspiring.”

This work falls under our Housing and Homelessness Programme, which supports organisations that use their understanding of individual problems that people experience, to expose and change faults in systems. You can find more about the programme and its strategy overview here.