City leaders to consider finalizing ordinance barring landlords from discriminating against tenants with housing vouchers

Lawrence City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

City leaders will soon consider finalizing changes that would prohibit landlords from denying prospective tenants based solely on their use of a government housing voucher or other forms of rental assistance.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will consider adopting on second and final reading an ordinance to provide equal opportunity to obtain housing regardless of source of income, as well as status as a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, or stalking. The commission voted in December to adopt the ordinance changes on first reading, but to delay the second reading of the measure until after the city held a meeting with landlords. The commission can still make changes to the ordinance or elect not to adopt it as part of its meeting Tuesday.

The source of income component of the ordinance has been the most discussed aspect of the changes. Under the proposed ordinance, it would be unlawful for a landlord to not accept or consider applications from prospective tenants based solely on their source of income, or to deny an application based solely on income source. The city received comments and questions from dozens of landlords, with many expressing concern that the change would negatively affect their rental business or rental properties. The city also heard from several tenants, a few landlords, and some local social service organizations that expressed support for the changes, with several people stating that discrimination against low-income tenants who use vouchers is an issue in Lawrence that the ordinance can help address.

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. When the City Commission and other groups studied housing issues in the community, protections against source of income discrimination was one of the proposed solutions, according to a Frequently Asked Questions document the city created for landlords. The Human Relations Commission found that 50% of Lawrence residents are renters, and that 80% of landlords do not accept vouchers. City staff has recommended adoption of the ordinance.

The Frequently Asked Questions document also addresses several other questions regarding how the ordinance and the voucher program work. The document states that landlords can still continue to set other screening criteria (which sometimes include credit score minimums, income minimums, and rental history requirements) as long as they are not discriminatory. The ordinance would also not force a landlord to rent to a particular tenant, and any landlord could 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 non-voucher tenants.

The ordinance also does not change the ability of a landlord to evict a tenant, though related notices should also be sent to the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority. Landlords can also increase rent during the lease renewal period, though the landlord is asked to provide comparable rental data to support the increase in rent to the housing authority. The housing authority will also research the typical renting prices, and if the increase is determined to be reasonable, the subsidy will be increased. If the housing authority does not find the increase reasonable and does not provide the additional subsidy, landlords have the right to a mutual termination or non-renewal of lease.

If the ordinance is approved, source of income and status as a survivor will join other protected classes, and enforcement of the new protections would fall under the city’s existing ordinance and complaint process. Currently, the city prohibits discrimination against persons by reason of race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, ancestry, familial status, sexual orientation, disability, or gender identity. The Human Relations Commission accepts, investigates and rules upon complaints related to discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and housing, according to the city’s website. The process includes a series of meetings and conciliations to try to resolve the situation, and a complaint does not go to court until after the city processes the violation as it would any other violation, according to the FAQ page.

The city held the meeting for landlords on Jan. 5, and approximately 120 people attended either in person or virtually via Zoom, according to a city staff memo to the commission. City staff, representatives of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, and the Human Relations Commission attended and answered questions. A summary of the comments and questions during the meeting, other correspondence received about the topic, and the FAQ page about the ordinance is available as part of the commission’s agenda, which is available on the city’s website, Lawrenceks.org.

The Lawrence City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

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