Lawrence leaders take another step toward protections for tenants who use housing vouchers, other government assistance
City commissioners Tuesday took another step to make Lawrence the first city in the state to prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to tenants who receive government assistance, such as Section 8 housing vouchers.
After about two hours of divided public comment, city commissioners expressed support for an ordinance that would prohibit landlords from discriminating against potential tenants on the basis of their “source of income.” However, commissioners ultimately agreed to delay passage of the ordinance for a month to give the city’s legal staff more time to refine the ordinance, especially in understanding how the new regulation may impact not just rental properties but the sale of homes.
What’s clear — and what has received most of the city’s attention — is that the ordinance means landlords couldn’t have a policy that refuses to accept applications from potential tenants who would pay all or a portion of their rent with vouchers from government assistance programs.
Commissioners expressed support for the ordinance after hearing that the number of Lawrence residents who have received a housing assistance voucher but can’t find a landlord to rent to them has been increasing.
“When someone approaches us that is homeless with a voucher, my heart falls into my stomach,” Kyle Roggenkamp, development and family stabilization director for the Ballard Center, said.
Officials with the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority — the largest organization offering voucher or housing assistance in the community — estimated there are about 70 households that have been awarded vouchers but have not been able to find a rental property. That’s up from a more normal monthly total of about 20 or 30 households, out of roughly 900 households that receive vouchers in the community.
Commissioners heard from a variety of social service organizations, many tenants, several people who currently are homeless and a few landlords who supported the new ordinance. But commissioners also heard from several landlords, their attorneys and real estate agents who urged the city to delay passage of the ordinance until it could be narrowed and better defined.
Some warned that the city’s new ordinance could create unintended consequences. Brandy Sutton, director of operations for Lawrence-based First Management, said the ordinance could require landlords to rent to tenants who have received only one or two months worth of rental assistance. When that assistance ends, it could create a situation where the tenant still has months left on a lease but no longer has the assistance needed to pay the rent.
“Now we have compounded the problem because they have an eviction on their record,” Sutton said of such a situation. “They will never find housing again.”
City commissioners, though, said the benefits of the new ordinance could be huge in making the city’s housing market fairer for people of color, low income, the elderly, disabled and other groups that traditionally have been primary recipients of housing assistance and voucher programs.
“I do believe this is going to be a wonderful step for our community,” City Commissioner Amber Sellers said. “We have heard a lot of people talk about equity and inclusion. I think the biggest piece this speaks to is inclusion by leveling the playing field.”
The new ordinance would make it illegal for landlords to deny potential tenants solely because they would be paying with a voucher or some form of rental assistance. However, it would not guarantee that a landlord must rent to someone who holds a voucher. 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.
Commissioners agreed to bring back the ordinance for a vote no later than Feb. 14. The revised ordinance is expected to change language related to how the ordinance would impact people who are selling a home. There was some concern expressed that the “source of income” definition could have an impact on what financial considerations a seller could take into account when choosing between multiple buyers of a home.
Commissioners also said that if the ordinance is approved next month, the city may choose to delay the date it becomes law for several months in order to give the city time to create a public education campaign for landlords and tenants.