Lawrence city leaders approve protections for tenants who use housing vouchers, other government assistance

photo by: City of Lawrence

Members of the public addressed the Lawrence City Commission about an ordinance protecting tenants who use housing vouchers and other government assistance during its meeting Feb. 14, 2023, at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

Lawrence city leaders have finalized an ordinance prohibiting landlords from refusing applications from tenants who receive rental assistance such as Section 8 housing vouchers.

The Lawrence City Commission voted 5-0 as part of its meeting Tuesday to approve the changes to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance. The ordinance will prohibit landlords from having a policy that refuses to accept applications from potential tenants who would pay all or a portion of their rent with Section 8 vouchers or other forms of rental assistance, or from rejecting an application based solely on a tenant’s source of income.

Commissioners agreed that the changes were needed and would benefit the community. Commissioner Amber Sellers said the ordinance was one piece of a large puzzle to address the community’s housing issues.

“A lot of the issues that we’re dealing with are 1,000-piece puzzles; they’re difficult,” Sellers said. “… And I believe that this is a step to get us to that point.”

Sellers said she used a housing voucher for two months when she was laid off from her job in her last year of graduate school. She said that two months of assistance helped keep her on track until she could find another job.

“That allowed me the opportunity to continue my studies and to graduate from grad school, and to have the job that I am blessed to have today,” Sellers said.

The Human Relations Commission has been studying the issue for two years and prepared the recommended policy changes in collaboration with community members working in the housing field. Mariel Ferreiro, finance manager and landlord liason for the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, said that while the housing authority typically has a high rate of voucher acceptance, that rate has been declining, as has the number of landlords that accept vouchers locally.

Ferreiro said that in the past there have typically been 20 to 30 households actively searching for a landlord to accept their voucher on a monthly basis, but that has changed in the last few years. She said currently there are more than 70 households that are out searching for a landlord to accept their voucher, and hundreds more are still waiting to receive a voucher in the first place.

“Our wait list (to receive a voucher) is 400-plus households,” Ferreiro said. “We cannot take people off that wait list and help house them and provide them a voucher unless we are utilizing the vouchers we have administered.”

Ferreiro previously told the commission that only about 10% of licensed rental properties currently accept vouchers and as new owners have taken over rental properties, many have been lost. She estimated the community has lost more than 1,000 units that accept vouchers in the last year.

The commission, which has discussed the topic on two previous occasions, heard comments for and against the changes. Nelson Vowels, senior director of mission operations for Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, wrote in a letter to the commission that the organization knows the changes would support Lawrence community members.

“Renters in Lawrence with vouchers currently have no protections from discrimination due to source of income,” Vowels wrote. “This significant barrier has caused our community’s Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) utilization rate to go down and frequently prevents the housing of our elderly, disabled, and working class population.”

The commission also heard from a representative of the Ballard Center in support of the changes, as well as several tenants. Among them was Viveca Price, who said the ordinance would help those who need it most.

“This would be a direct way of housing people and providing protections for some of our most vulnerable,” Price said.

Several landlords have spoken against the changes, with many expressing concern that they could negatively impact their business or properties. Landlords still would be allowed to deny tenants on the basis of credit checks, background checks, rental references and other items that typically are part of a rental application. Any landlord could still choose a tenant without a voucher over a tenant with a voucher; however, a repeated behavior could potentially be considered discriminatory if that was why the landlord was choosing tenants who weren’t using rental assistance.

Adam Hall, an attorney representing the association Landlords of Lawrence, wrote a letter to the commission suggesting several changes to the proposed ordinance. Those included writing in “safe harbors” to ensure that landlords continued to have the ability to conduct “commercially reasonable and nondiscriminatory business practices,” such as screening tenants.

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei, who is an attorney, said protections for source of income are in place in multiple states and communities, and that he thinks some of the legal concerns raised by landlords and those in the real estate industry are hypothetical and would not be real issues.

“There are 16 states and 106 localities that have source of income protection,” he said. “It’s very well established in the case law; it’s very well established across the United States. Landlords and tenants have worked within these systems.”

Finkeldei also said that most of the concerns the commission heard have been from small landlords that own houses, but he did not foresee a large demand on those properties. He said the vast majority of those with vouchers — 54 out of the 79 households as of December — were seeking a one-bedroom unit. He said many rental homes would be ruled out either because of the number of bedrooms or the price, which must fall within certain affordability guidelines. He said he saw the ordinance having a larger impact on several large out-of-state landlords that own apartment complexes and recently stopped accepting vouchers.

The commission also approved making it unlawful to discriminate based on someone’s status as a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking or stalking, and based on someone’s immigration status. Hall expressed concern that landlords could be accused of “harboring” undocumented people, a violation of federal law, but city legal staff said the court cases cited did not apply to Kansas and the cases’ circumstances — which included landlords who paid people to smuggle others across borders — were not akin to renting to someone and would not run afoul of any federal immigration statutes.

In other business, the commission voted 5-0 to adopt a resolution to put proposed changes to the city’s form of government — including some seats elected by districts and a directly elected mayor — on the November 2024 ballot. The commission also voted 5-0 to adopt an ordinance to amend city code to establish four-year terms on the commission, a change that will occur regardless of the outcome of the ballot question.


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