Voucher Tenants Need Protection from Discrimination and Preemption

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October 27, 2016; Dallas Observer

Even as some senators put more emphasis on housing choice vouchers (HCV) and recognize the social value of mobility, state governments are raising roadblocks to Source of Income (SOI) protections for HCV households.

In response to local initiatives to expand discrimination protections (and a host of other issues), business interests have come to rely on more conservative state legislatures to block a wide variety of local initiatives. The root of the problem is that gerrymandered state house and senate districts have given more conservative rural communities the balance of power in state legislatures.

Dallas is the latest example of towns and cities having to deal with state preemption. The Dallas Observer tells how a progressive city council in Dallas has backed down from a confrontation with the Texas State Legislature over anti-discrimination laws that would have protected housing choice voucher households.

The city of Dallas is not going to be the test case for the state of Texas’ ban on ordinances that require landlords to take affordable housing vouchers. Wednesday, the Dallas City Council voted 9-6 against enacting an income non-discrimination, later adopting a half-measure that will require builders getting certain tax breaks from the city to rent a small percentage of their units to voucher recipients.

NPQ has reported on the battles between advocates for geographic mobility and their political opponents for years now in its nonprofit newswire. The continuing struggle will undoubtedly carry into the next decade as proponents argue the developmental benefits of geographic mobility and opponents resist residential integration.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings isn’t shy about challenging higher-ups, but he voted against the ordinance because he saw little chance of success. He didn’t say, but had to be thinking that a fight comes with a price tag, financially and politically. The council was similarly divided. Councilman Rickey Callahan, whose district includes “some of the poorest neighborhoods,” opposed the ordinance for fear that requiring owners to rent to voucher tenants would “discourage development and the free market.” Councilman Callahan is likely cognizant of the fact that if passed, a portion of his voters could be moving out of his district. What elected official would want to see that happen?

In fact, SOI protections would probably not affect market rents or development since only about 25 percent of eligible households have a housing choice voucher. The HCV program is designed to be responsive to market rents and landlords would receive the same total rent from an HCV household as from a non-subsidized household. The only difference to the landlord would be that the rent would come in two checks—a portion from the HCV tenant and a portion from the Housing Authority. No difference, that is, unless the landlord would see an influx of non-white families.

It’s interesting that the article doesn’t mention the issue of race. Sandy Rollins from the Texas Tenants Union confirms that the majority of Dallas voucher holders are African American. The TTU has documented situations where the same landlord will accept vouchers at a property in a minority community and not in a non-minority community. As Ms. Rollins asks, “What does that tell you?” The lack of choice for HCV households creates a hardship for many families. Tenants can’t find suitable housing before their vouchers expire. “Right now the city of Dallas has about a 60 percent failure rate to utilize vouchers when they’re issued. People can’t find the landlords willing to accept them.”

A similar struggle is facing tenants in Renton, Washington, where two large complexes have decided that they will no longer accept HCV households.

Dozens of Renton residents have turned to the City Council for help after their landlords said they will no longer accept federal housing vouchers for low-income renters. Several residents at the council’s Monday night meeting urged its members and Mayor Denis Law to adopt legislation to prevent what they say is discrimination against renters in the Section 8 program.

According to the news story, about 65 households are facing non-renewal at the end of their lease terms and, going forward, neither property will be open to HVC households. Nearby Seattle adopted an SOI ordinance this past August. So far, there’s no evidence of a move to preempt local governments from enacting this kind of ordinance at the Washington State Legislature.

Towns and cities that believed they had home rule powers increasingly find themselves frustrated by their state legislatures. CityLab gives an optimistic view of efforts to push back against state preemption, but there’s a political and financial cost to challenging state preemption laws. This past week, Wilson, North Carolina, which created a municipal Internet service provider, declared that it would provide free service to residents after the state passed a preemption ordinance that said a local jurisdiction could not “sell” internet service. If only that could work for local efforts to prevent discrimination.—Spencer Wells