The Myth of Ownership Affects Judges, Part II

Part one is here. I’ve been researching how judges deal with tenants using Section 8 vouchers who make claims against landlords for money damages. For instance, when a landlord does not properly maintain the unit (a breach of the implied warranty of habitability), a tenant is generally allowed to receive damages equal to a percentage of what they paid in rent. However, Section 8 tenants pay their rent partially with cash and partially with a government-administered voucher. So do judges understand the voucher part of the payment as being paid by the tenant or being paid by the government?

The D.C. court of appeals decided the answer to that question is the government (Anderson v. D.C. Hous. Auth., 923 A.2d 853, 859 (D.C. 2007)).

Ms. Anderson contends that the landlord’s breach of the implied warranty of habitability deprived her of the benefit of her bargain. Ms. Anderson argues that what she bargained for in this lease was a decent and clean unit, free of code violations, and valued at $1,350 per month, not $234. Whether she paid all or just a portion of the rent is irrelevant, she argues. However, we reject that argument in circumstances where a public agency such as DCHA has asserted a claim to payments it has made on Ms. Anderson’s behalf.

So Anderson has a $1,350/mo apartment. She pays $234 in cash and the remaining in Section 8 vouchers. She wants to be able to receive damages apportioned against the full $1,350/mo rent. But the housing authority is claiming that they should receive damages for the voucher portion that they “paid”, meaning she only receives damages apportioned against the $234 in cash. The court sides against the tenant.

But ask yourself why this is the decision. I think there are two threads here. First, in-kind benefits are seen as just totally not even belonging to you. Would the court have decided it this way if, instead of a Section 8 voucher, the tenant had been provided by the state a cash transfer? If she had used her Social Security money to rent the apartment or her Earned Income Tax Credit money? No, of course not. It would have never even entered into this inquiry whatsoever.

Second, there is a myth of ownership issue here. A sober mind looks at Section 8 vouchers and realizes that this is a distributive institution just like any other. It determines who gets what. But we view distributions resulting from institutions like Section 8 as basically unreal. You don’t really own your Section 8 voucher even though you have a legal entitlement to it. Yet you somehow really own the other things government institutions like the “economy” (which the government constructs through laws and administers daily through courts and police) distribute to you.

Amusingly, the theory for why you can’t provide the tenant damages apportioned against the full rent is called unjust enrichment. Imagine that! It would be unjustly enriching the tenant to provide damages apportioned against the full rent that the tenant paid with money and vouchers that she had full legal entitlements to!

Meanwhile, the housing authority, who was going to fund the voucher amount whether the apartment was inadequately maintained or not, somehow has a legitimate claim to get some of the money back. The tenant is the only one whose life was diminished by the landlord’s breach, but instead of making the tenant whole (where whole means compensating them up to where they would have been had the apartment been properly maintained, i.e. $1,350/mo in rental value), the housing authority is somehow getting a slice.

Point is: this ideology stuff matters in real ways.