Three Minneapolis City Council members are moving ahead with an ordinance to protect people who use housing vouchers from discrimination by landlords.
Wednesday, Council Member Elizabeth Glidden and other city officials briefed the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority about the proposed ordinance. The law would amend existing city civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in real estate by adding “status with regard to public assistance, or any requirement of a public assistance program” to the list of factors that a landlord can’t use when making decisions in choosing tenants. The ordinance includes Housing Choice Vouchers, commonly referred to as Section 8, in the definition of “public assistance program.”
If the ordinance were to pass — and Glidden said she thinks she has a majority of support on council — building owners and managers in Minneapolis would no longer be allowed to have blanket prohibitions against people who use the federally funded but locally administered Housing Choice Vouchers. If two applicants met all other criteria, such as rental history or past conduct, the landlord could not use the form of payment as a reason not to rent an apartment to a voucher holder.
The other sponsors of the ordinance are Council Members Abdi Warsame and Lisa Goodman. Glidden expected it to reach the public hearing stage by mid-March.
Glidden emphasized that the ordinance does not mandate that all rental businesses take part in the Housing Choice Voucher program, which by federal law is voluntary. “Having an anti-discrimination ordinance does not mean there is a requirement that all landlords have to accept housing choice vouchers,” Glidden said.
That may be a difference without a distinction for landlords, however. “We’re extremely surprised that Council Member Glidden has taken no public input, ignored the concerns of housing providers and still wants to force this upon over 200,000 Minneapolis residents without a transparent public process,” Mary Rippe, president of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, said in a statement. “After nearly a year of saying she’s working on it, she now acknowledges there are no substantial changes in the proposal that was unworkable early last year. This will cause major disruption to a historically stable rental market.”
As drafted, the ordinance creates a way for building owners to claim that accepting a voucher would pose an “undue hardship,” but that in and of itself wouldn’t be enough for a landlord to not comply with the law. The civil rights department would draft rules and make determinations of what “undue hardship” entails. The ordinance would not apply to people who rent rooms in their home; to owner-occupied duplexes; or to people who temporarily rent out their primary residence.
Danielle Shelton Walczak, the director of the complaint investigations division of the city civil rights department, said the ordinance expresses a policy that voucher holders in Minneapolis should be on equal footing with those paying with cash when under consideration to rent housing. “What we see is complete blanket prohibitions, like when you go into craigslist and it says ‘No Section 8,’ and we want that to end,” Walczak said. “If you have someone with a viable source of income, which is Section 8, you should consider them just as you would another applicant. It isn’t a mandate to take Section 8, but it is a requirement to at least consider.”
Spreading the use of vouchers
The voucher ordinance is part of a broader attempt by both the council and the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority to expand the geography where housing choice vouchers are used in the city — a reaction to complaints by some on the council that North Minneapolis and the areas east of downtown absorb more than their share of low-income housing
Currently, the housing authority’s 5,076 vouchers are concentrated in areas of poverty in city wards 3, 4 and 6. The average income for voucher holders is $14,470, and the waiting list to get into the program exceeds 2,500.
Council President Barbara Johnson, who represents Ward 4 in north Minneapolis, has complained to the authority that it concentrates too much of the city’s low-income housing in North Minneapolis. She said Wednesday she would like to support Glidden’s proposed ordinance as a means of spreading the subsidized housing around the entire city.
“The program itself gets a negative vibe from the community when there are challenges with the landlords and some of the tenants who use the program,” Johnson said. “If I had a listening session about whether we should expand Section 8, my constituents would show up and say ‘Are you kidding?’ It is perceived as a program that is harming single-family neighborhoods.”
Another reason given for increasing the ability to use vouchers across the city and region is that studies indicate that people — especially children — have better outcomes if they live in areas with better schools, lower crime and better employment opportunities.
“Research shows that comprehensive mobility counseling programs result in program participants gaining access to neighborhoods that are safer, healthier, have better schools and numerous other positive attributes,” reported a study by Quadel Consulting of Washington, D.C., that was commissioned by the Family Housing Fund of Minneapolis.
The study, presented to the housing authority Wednesday, suggested ways for the authority to do more in promoting housing mobility for voucher holders to live in what are termed “opportunity areas.”
City considers creating damage fund
There is pushback to the proposal by voucher holders and some low-income housing advocates, however. They fear such policies will lead to disinvestment in areas with high-concentrations of poverty — neighborhoods that have issues related to education, crime and poverty but that are also historic and cultural hubs for both longstanding and recently arrived communities.
Glidden said her ordinance, which she and Council Member Abdi Warsame have been working on for three years, was in response to complaints that it was difficult for some voucher holders to find apartments that would accept them. Advocates for low-income renters, such as HOME Line and Legal Aid, have identified impediments that keep voucher holders from finding suitable housing in other parts of the city, including high rents. But another reason is that landlords who don’t have blanket prohibitions against accepting vouchers are concentrated in lower-income areas of the city.
In addition to boosting the use of vouchers to enhance mobility, the Quadel report suggested the authority look for opportunities to use what are termed “project-based vouchers” to provide more inventory in parts of the city and region that have an undersupply of affordable housing. Unlike housing choice vouchers, which are used by individuals to cover rent payments, project-based vouchers are paid to the building owner in exchange for maintaining units with affordable rents.
The report also proposed setting rent limits based on neighborhoods rather than citywide. That would permit the authority to increase the reimbursement in neighborhoods where rents are generally higher than the citywide average.
Both the city and authority are also looking for ways to ease the burden of housing inspections on those that accept Section 8 vouchers. Landlords who do not take part in the program often mention the hassles and delays caused by the inspections, which must be done before a voucher holder rents an apartment.
Though not yet in ordinance form, Minneapolis is further considering creating a fund that would reimburse landlords for damage to units that exceeds the damage deposit on the unit. Andrea Brennan, the city’s director of housing policy and development, said that is in response to a perception by some landlords that voucher holders are more likely to damage units.
“The data doesn’t support that — that Section 8 voucher holders create more damage — than any other renter of units,” she said. But as a way to encourage reluctant landlords to volunteer to work with the program, the fund would provide some assurances that they wouldn’t be harmed financially.
Greg Russ, the new director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, said there was a similar program in his previous job in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that also reimbursed for losses from keeping units vacant while waiting for inspections.
“You really have a chance to come into the program with some confidence,” Russ said of landlords, even if the fund was rarely tapped into. Cambridge, he said, has 4,000 vouchers, but processed only four or five damage claims each year.