Under Texas law, landlords cannot be punished for discriminating against families with federal housing vouchers. The impact is clear in Houston, where one in four families who receive housing assistance never gets to use it.
When Denise Taylor heard police sirens, she rushed to the porch of her Chicago apartment to look down the street.
It was early 2017, and Taylor had only recently allowed her 13-year-old daughter Kristina to play with friends outside. Not in the park around the corner — Taylor couldn’t see quite that far. Their neighborhood on the west side of Chicago was not a place for children to roam. It wasn’t uncommon to hear gunshots; Kristina’s school regularly went on lockdown because of nearby shootings.
As she looked out from the porch, she saw a police car chasing another vehicle — and there stood Kristina, playing nearby. Suddenly, one of the cars lost control, driving over the curb and crashing into a tree, a hair’s breadth from her daughter.
This was the moment Taylor decided to leave. She knew she needed to make a drastic change to improve life for her youngest daughter. She remembers telling Kristina: “That is not normal. What you’re seeing here, that is not black life.”
“But where can I take her to really see it?”
The answer came to her online. A deeply religious woman in the digital age, Taylor spends a lot of time watching pastors give sermons on websites like Periscope and Facebook. One day in the spring of 2017 as she watched a sermon livestream, she commented with a simple, “Hi, I’m from Chicago.” The pastor wrote back, “Hi, I’m from Texas.”
The pastor’s name was Pamela Banks. And it just so happened that she was also a real estate agent. Many of her clients used a federal government benefit called a housing choice voucher, also known as a Section 8 voucher, which subsidizes a family’s rental payments.
Taylor was familiar with vouchers. She’d received one a few years earlier after a difficult divorce, and it allowed her to pay $238 a month to live on the first floor of a white, two-bedroom Chicago apartment; the Chicago Housing Authority paid the remaining $712.
One perk of the federal program is that renters can use their vouchers anywhere in the country. Banks told Taylor that if she really wanted to leave her Chicago neighborhood in search of a new beginning, Banks could help her look in Houston. Taylor and her daughter could even stay in Banks’ house during their search.
Houston was a booming city with some attractive offerings: plenty of jobs, racial diversity and comparatively cheap housing. Taylor had few connections there, but the small church community she’d found online was ready to welcome her.