Student veterans seek fair housing opportunities

By Brett Stewart and Alexandra Olsen

Danny Woodruff, a junior theatre major from Indiana, served in the Army for six-and-a-half years from 2006 to 2013 and was deployed in the Middle East from 2010 to 2011.

Upon returning home, Woodruff could not find housing because many of the city’s landlords rejected his GI Bill housing allowance, a benefit, along with tuition assistance, that is available to former members of the military.

“I had to go to Indianapolis, back home where my parents live, and have them co-sign on my lease,” Woodruff said.

Landlords would ignore him and never get back to him, Woodruff said, adding that his lack of rent history or proof of income and pay stubs made housing applications a struggle because his housing allowance from the Veteran’s Administration is distributed electronically. A number of veterans have experienced difficulties getting landlords to rent to them because they receive benefits from the government that fund their housing, but as Woodruff noted, landlords often want to see pay stubs.

According to Columbia’s Student Veterans Society, the college is home to about 200 students receiving tuition and housing benefits through the GI Bill.

Chicago passed a fair housing ordinance Feb.10 that added veterans to its list of 16 classes of protected citizens, which already covered families, people with disabilities and seniors, among others.

Blase Villano, president of Columbia’s Student Veterans Society and a junior cinema art + science major, said many landlords have preconceived notions about post-traumatic stress disorder and hesitate to rent to veterans.

“Going to war does not automatically instill PTSD,” Villano said.

He said this is a widespread assumption about veterans, but it is not a frequent or automatic byproduct of having been deployed.

“This act is an effort to protect veteran tenants from landlords who have a misinformed opinion on veteran issues, not to give veterans a carte blanche to skip out on rent when they see fit,” Villano said.

Many landlords will not accept GI Bill stipends as a proof of income, according to the Chicago Commission on Human Relations and the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Veterans.

For reserve military, problems still emerge. Many landlords will not rent to a tenant who could be deployed and leave a property abruptly vacant.

Victor LaGroon, the city’s director of Veteran Affairs, said he first learned of the issue of housing discrimination in Chicago when visiting Columbia in January to speak to a J-term journalism class on reporting war stories.

“Many students are facing what we call ‘income discrimination,’ which means your source of income cannot be discriminated against and cannot be a deciding factor [in] whether or not you get housing,” LaGroon said.

LaGroon said landlords may not be aware that they are discriminating against veterans through their housing regulations. For example, some landlords may not accept  veterans’ applications because they have service dogs. However, service animals are not pets—they aid with disability. 

“That creates more of a disparity in a community that is already facing challenges,” he said. “What we want to see is that everyone has a very good and fair opportunity to housing.”

LaGroon said he does not know exactly how many veterans have been discriminated against when they are seeking housing with their GI Bill stipend but estimated that it could be hundreds, if not thousands. 

E.J. Talbot, the veteran’s affairs representative for Columbia, said landlords put student veterans through a difficult process to prove they can afford the rent. He said he has often had to intervene.

“What I have seen is people having a hard time with landlords and rental agencies because they can’t prove an income,” Talbot said. “This comes up because you’ve got disabled vets who may or may not have PTSD that don’t look like disabled vets.”

Landlords cannot discriminate because of a medical condition, Talbot said. Landlords instead use the “lack of proof of income” as an excuse to discriminate against a possible medical condition, he added.

The passing of the ordinance should relieve heavy stress on Chicago-based veterans, especially student veterans. For students like Woodruff, it also means they do not need their parents to sign a lease for veteran children already in their 30s.