Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Not So Fast - The Final Part of Our Series on Source of Income Discrimination

As we discussed in the last posting in this series, there remain tremendous challenges in resolving the macro issue that inhibits those with little means from renting apartments – the lack of adequate affordable housing stock. However, it would seem that the micro challenge – allowing landlords to discriminate against low income renters, based on the source of their rental payments – could be and was on its way to being resolved in one if not two major Texas cities. Austin had passed an ordinance prohibiting such discrimination, and Dallas had committed to considering such an ordinance.

One of the principals of American government is that, generally, federal legislation preempts and overrides state legislation. State legislation, in turn, perhaps without need for the “generally” caveat in the previous sentence, preempts and overrides local government legislation. This last legislative session, with regard to this very issue, the legislature stepped in and legislated in this very area in SB 267. The operative section of this legislation had three paragraphs (Once again, any interpretation should be taken with the obvious disclaimer that I am not an attorney, certainly not one licensed in Texas, and this is my simple lay explanation):

Section 1 (a) prohibits local governments from prohibiting source of income discrimination, in general: “A municipality or county may not adopt or enforce an ordinance or regulation that prohibits an owner, lessee, sublessee, assignee, managing agent, or other person having the right to lease, sublease, or rent a housing accommodation from refusing to lease or rent the housing accommodation to a person because the person's lawful source of income to pay rent includes funding from a federal housing assistance program.” The “double negative” can be confusing – the state prohibits prohibiting. Basically, landlords may discriminate against those holding vouchers, and local governments cannot stop them from doing so. 

Section 1 (b) allows local governments to prohibit source of income discrimination, if the renter is a veteran: “This section does not affect an ordinance or regulation that prohibits the refusal to lease or rent a housing accommodation to a military veteran because of the veteran's lawful source of income to pay rent.”

Section 1(c) allows local governments to incentivize and encourage landlords to voluntarily accept housing vouchers: “This section does not affect any authority of a municipality or county or decree to create or implement an incentive, contract commitment, density bonus, or other voluntary program designed to encourage the acceptance of a housing voucher directly or indirectly funded by the federal government, including a federal housing choice voucher.”

With this new law in place, Austin could not enforce its ordinance, and Dallas certainly could still consider such an ordinance, but could not meaningfully address this issue, with regard to non-veterans. What can local governments, particularly in our geographical area of concern, Greater Dallas, still do? It would seem that they are left with two main options for veterans and non-veterans respectively.

First, local governments could pass ordinances prohibiting source of income discrimination in the case of veterans. As we heard from Shavon Moore, MDHA Continuum of Care (CoC) Program Coordinator, at the last regular CoC Assembly meeting, currently 120(!) veterans experiencing homelessness have housing vouchers, but not even one of them find housing. Most likely, many and perhaps most of these veterans, could be housed quickly, if landlords could no longer discriminate against them, refusing to accept their vouchers.   
Second, local governments could create programs to educate landlords about the positives and dispel myths and preconceptions about the negatives of accepting renters holding housing vouchers. To complement this education, local governments could grant incentives, perhaps through actual expenditures or tax expenditures to encourage landlords to accept vouchers.
Isabelle Headrick, Executive Director of Accessible Housing Austin
(Courtesy of Accessible Housing Austin)
With such education, landlords could arrive at the realization voiced by Isabelle Headrick, Executive Director of Accessible Housing Austin, “As someone who has leased properties to voucher holders for twelve years, I have found that Section 8 and other voucher programs make my job substantially easier, not harder… these are actually very well-run programs that put money into my organization’s bank account like clockwork every month and allow me to serve tenants who are very stable and stay for years.”

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