Commentary: Law protects tenants from housing discrimination

Home signAs a single mother, a veteran and a renter who uses a voucher to help pay my rent, I am no stranger to what it’s like to face discrimination in the rental market.

Despite my squeaky-clean rental history and decent credit, I’ve been denied apartment after apartment, just because I pay a portion of my rent with a Housing Choice (also known as Section 8) voucher.

And that is why, for the past seven years, I have been a fierce advocate for a new law that went into effect Sept. 30, a ban on discrimination by landlords against tenants who use income or rental assistance to help pay the rent.

My voucher is administered by the Snohomish County Public Housing Authority, and rent is paid directly to my landlord each month, on time, every time. But if I need to move, there is a process I have to go through to transfer my voucher to a new address, and that means the current requirement that landlords only need provide 20 days notice to terminate tenancy sets off a crisis for people like me. I experienced this not long ago when my landlord decided to no longer accept Housing Choice vouchers, and 20 days later, I was homeless. It’s hard for anyone to move with such little notice, but I have an extra task of getting my paperwork in order before I can begin my search for a new home. When you couple that with a market that is expensive, and where a large portion is totally off limits because of blanket “no Section 8” bans, it’s easy to understand how I was homeless for eight long months.

Thankfully, after 10 years of advocacy and discussion, our Legislature passed House Bill 2578, and cemented into law that a landlord cannot deny a tenants’ application based solely on that applicants’ use of income or rental assistance to help pay the rent. Assistance is defined as benefits or subsidy programs including housing assistance, public assistance, emergency rental assistance, veteran’s benefits, Social Security, supplemental security income or other retirement programs, and other programs administered by any federal, state, local or nonprofit entity. Source of income does not include income derived in an illegal manner.

For me, this law is personal. My search for a home lasted months longer than it should have because landlord after landlord wouldn’t rent to me. Nine times I applied for an apartment, I paid the application and background check fees totaling several hundred dollars, and was denied each time because the landlord refused to rent to a “Section 8” tenant. In addition to those nine official denials, there were dozens of landlords who told me over the phone to not bother applying, and even more rental ads that explicitly said “No Section 8.”

As a part of my advocacy for this bill, I met with many stakeholders, including lawmakers, who didn’t know what it meant for a tenant to participate in the Housing Choice voucher program. First of all, the money from that voucher is guaranteed to the landlord by the government. Frankly, it’s more reliable than income from employment as employment status is always subject to change, even with tenants who don’t use a voucher.

Tenants in the Housing Choice program have strict rules to follow in order to stay in the program, which in turn makes us model, long-term tenants, and that’s great for landlords. Some voucher programs, like mine, require yearly inspections, which is a win/win for landlords and tenants because: the inspection is paid for by the government; landlords are alerted to any repairs that need to be made, which keeps their investment properties in excellent shape; and tenants like me are always living in a safe and healthy home.

In addition to removing this barrier to the private rental market for people like me, and allowing for more people to access homes they can afford, this law is a big win for landlords. The most significant component is what’s known as the Landlord Mitigation Program.

The Landlord Mitigation Program addresses many of the issues I heard about while educating landlords and lawmakers about what this law would provide: the cost of inspections and repairs, loss of rent, and damages to a unit when a tenant moves out. The Landlord Mitigation Program solves all three of these problems. Before a tenant using a Housing Choice voucher can move in, the unit must be inspected, repairs could be determined to be necessary, and those repairs could delay the move-in date of the tenant. The Landlord Mitigation Program allows the landlord to apply for reimbursement of those repairs, up to $1,000, and reimbursement of lost rent of up to two weeks if the tenant move-in date is delayed because of those repairs. Additionally, when the tenant moves out, if there are damages beyond normal wear and tear, the landlord can apply for reimbursement of up to $5,000.

Today, I have a place to call home. The stability of my home has allowed me to start my own business, become a leader in my community, and give back to the people who helped me out while I was homeless. But finding this apartment was sheer luck. After so many denials and an extension of my voucher, I found my current landlord only two days before I was scheduled to lose my voucher entirely. And there are many tenants, just like me, who lose their vouchers because they can’t find a landlord to rent to them within the time period the program requires.

Thanks to this new law, renters who use vouchers will no longer face denials based simply on their use of assistance. Time spent searching for an affordable home will decrease, many will have an easier time exiting homelessness, and no longer can someone like me lose their home because a landlord decides the kind of money they currently receive isn’t the right kind of money. We all want to live in vibrant, thriving communities, and eliminating this barrier to housing for people with low-incomes will help us achieve just that.

Edmonds resident Mindy Woods is a housing and homelessness advocate with the Resident Action Project, a housing policy advocacy group.

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