Lawrence’s affordable housing board calls for prohibitions against source-of-income discrimination in housing

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured Thursday, July 7, 2016.

For those struggling to afford housing or already experiencing homelessness, being approved for housing assistance can seem like a solution is finally at hand. The reality is that even with that money guaranteed, it can be months before recipients of housing assistance are able to find a landlord or property management company willing to rent to them.

Dana Ortiz, executive director of the housing support program Lawrence Family Promise and member of the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board, said that a family who qualifies for a housing voucher is initially given 90 days to find a landlord, and sometimes that isn’t enough. Ortiz said it’s not uncommon for a family to need one or even two 90-day extensions, or six to nine months total, to find a landlord who will accept the vouchers.

Ortiz said that’s valuable time for anyone who is experiencing homelessness or overburdened by housing costs, as securing housing allows them to focus on other needs and issues, including finding additional sources of income to support themselves.

“So much happens to stabilize a household when you’re actually in a house as opposed to trying to figure it all out in crisis when you’re worried about where you’re going to spend the night with your family tonight,” Ortiz said. “So housing solves a lot of problems, and getting into housing shouldn’t be such an enormous obstacle if there’s income discrimination practices that are done away with.”

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The federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 protects people from housing discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, sex, disability and family status, but there are no federal protections for source of income. Though many cities and states have instituted additional fair housing laws to protect recipients of Section 8 vouchers and other housing assistance, there is nothing in Kansas law or City of Lawrence ordinances that stops landlords from refusing to lease to someone based solely on their source of income.

Members of the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board have said the lack of protections can make it difficult for residents approved for rental assistance to find a landlord to accept those payments, and the board is hoping that can soon change. In response to a recommendation from the board, the City of Lawrence recently sent a letter to the State of Kansas Housing Workgroup regarding state regulatory barriers to affordable housing in Kansas, including issues related to what is known as source-of-income discrimination.

Apart from the time it takes recipients of housing assistance to find accepting landlords, advocates argue there are other detrimental effects. According to the American Bar Association, often the denial of housing will serve as a pretext for a prohibited form of discrimination, and disproportionately affects renters of color, women and people with disabilities. As a result, source-of-income discrimination contributes to the perpetuation of racially segregated communities and neighborhoods with concentrated poverty.

But shifts are occurring. As the country faces a growing housing affordability crisis, tenants rights groups and other advocates have pushed for prohibitions against source-of-income discrimination as a means to provide more housing options for voucher holders, reduce the concentration of vouchers in low-income neighborhoods and promote housing mobility, according to the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. Approximately 20 states and 100 cities or counties prohibit discrimination in the housing market based on source of income, and the council now estimates that almost half of voucher holders are now covered.

However, there may be limitations for what the City of Lawrence can do on its own. The letter from the city to the Housing Workgroup states that Kansas has imposed broad laws impeding local governments from implementing various rent restrictions, and that such laws impede local governments from prohibiting landlords from discriminating based on a tenant’s source of income.

“Currently, landlords can decide if they wish to accept Section 8 vouchers or not and many choose to restrict housing access for these vulnerable individuals and families, leading to unnecessary backlogs on waiting lists for affordable units,” the letter states.

The letter states that state and local policies barring source-of-income discrimination allow for fair access regardless of source of income and could be an important tool to opening up housing opportunities. The letter encourages further consideration of a state law uniformly banning such discrimination, as well as a reconsideration of restrictions on inclusionary zoning, which would allow a local jurisdiction to require a share of new construction to be affordable to people with low and moderate incomes.

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However, some landlord groups have been resistant to such changes. The National Multifamily Housing Council’s position is that local source of income protections are effectively forcing apartment firms to participate in the voluntary Section 8 federal housing subsidy program. The council states that participation in such programs comes with regulatory paperwork and “onerous” bureaucratic requirements.

Pushback from landlord groups has also occurred regionally. In December 2019, members of the advocacy group KC Tenants succeeded in their efforts to get the Kansas City Council to pass its first-ever tenants bill of rights, which included source-of-income protections, according to reporting from the Kansas City Star. But after pushback from landlords, a provision was added that said landlords would not be required to participate in the voluntary federal voucher program.

Ortiz, who is also involved with the Housing Stabilization Collaborative that has distributed rental assistance during the pandemic, said some local landlords have also expressed concerns about the requirements and process involved with vouchers, but that the coronavirus pandemic has helped some landlords to change their minds. With countless people struggling financially due to income loss related to the pandemic and more federal aid allocated for housing support and homelessness prevention programs, Ortiz said landlords have been more understanding, and assistance programs have some success speaking with hesitant landlords and making them more comfortable with how the process works.

Still, she said refusal of housing assistance remained a problem, even amid the pandemic. Ortiz said whether it’s federal vouchers, pandemic housing assistance or rapid rehousing funding for people experiencing homelessness, that assistance is valid income.

“There are some (landlords) that don’t want to accept funding like that, and they just want the assurance that somebody is earning it directly themselves and paying for it directly themselves, and that’s where the income discrimination comes in,” Ortiz said. “… No matter where it comes from, that is income.”

The city’s letter asks the Kansas Housing Workgroup to examine state law and the regulatory issues noted, including potential impediments to local prohibitions against source-of-income discrimination, and requests the work group recommend changes to state lawmakers that would benefit the entire state.

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