Albuquerque could ban tenant income discrimination
“No Section 8” would disappear from rental postings. Councilors expect a big debate about the proposal.
Cree Walker, right, and her family have a Section 8 voucher but in late September had been unable to find a landlord who would take it for months. So they had to cram into this extended-stay hotel room and feared being kicked out any day. Pictured are Walker with mom Renae Simonson, along Walker’s kids Gabriel, 12, Castiel, 7, Azariah, 6, and Renesmee, 5 in September 2021. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)
Lawmakers for New Mexico’s biggest city are anticipating a heated debate and controversial vote on a new housing policy, one that would prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to tenants who carry Section 8 vouchers or other subsidies.
At an Albuquerque City Council committee meeting Monday night, councilors voted to postpone a vote on the measure for 30 days. They said they did so to solicit more public comment and answer some outstanding questions about the legality and logistics of a so-called “source-of-income discrimination” ban.
“I definitely would like to hear from the public tonight …and ask some questions so that we can start the robust conversation that I think this deserves,” said Brook Bassan, a city councilor who co-sponsored the bill, along with Pat Davis.
Public comment Monday showed the corners of the debate on a new policy: It could impose additional burdens on landlords and government housing inspectors, but it would also help hundreds of low-income families finally find a place to live. Tenant advocates and groups trying to handle the city’s homelessness crisis were in favor of the ban, while the state apartment association and real estate groups were opposed.
The measure would amend portions of the city’s Human Rights Ordinance, which already prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to tenants based on things like race, sexual orientation or disability. The change would insert a ban on refusing to give a lease to tenants who pay rents with a Section 8 voucher or other sources like Social Security, pandemic-related emergency rental assistance, or even gifts and inheritances.
Section 8 vouchers allow low-income tenants to find housing on their own and get most of their rent (often 70%) covered by the federal government. But a landlord must agree to accept the voucher and agree to a home inspection to ensure the tenant is not moving into substandard conditions.
There are at least 200 individuals or families in Albuquerque that have successfully received Section 8 housing vouchers — sometimes after waiting for months or years — only to be turned away at the door of some apartments or houses, according to Alexandra Paisano, an official with the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.
“Some of them have been looking for housing for close to a year, since June of last year,” Paisano said. “It’s taking on average well over 100 days to find housing right now, just because so many landlords and property managers refuse to accept housing vouchers, even though they’re guaranteed to get their rent every single month.”
As of Tuesday, there were 54 Albuquerque apartment advertisements on Craigslist.org that included the phrase “No Section 8.”
A Searchlight New Mexico analysis in October 2021 found that 81 percent of households who are successfully making use of their Section 8 vouchers live in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
Alan LaSeck, director of the Apartment Association of New Mexico, told the committee that requiring landlords to accept Section 8 would come with many “unintended consequences,” including adding more burdens to landlords with few properties and requiring them to accept tenants without steady income streams.
“I really want to stress that our opposition is really with the policies and not with the participants in these programs,” he said. “We have many members that accept housing vouchers voluntarily and will continue to do so without new laws.”
LaSeck also noted that state lawmakers have twice punted on legislation that would have banned Section 8 discrimination across the state. Both times, a bill containing a suite of housing law changes died in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Albuquerque councilors asked legal officials whether the city would face any fallout from adopting a source-of-income discrimination ban without waiting for the rest of the state.
Torri Jacobus, managing attorney for the city’s Office of Civil Rights, said Albuquerque has a history of leading the charge in New Mexico — and the rest of the country — when it comes to human rights protections. She said Albuquerque should again lead by example in this instance.
There are at least 16 states that ban source-of-income discrimination, and some cities have also banned it themselves, including Boulder and Denver in Colorado, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.
She also pointed out that landlords can face lawsuits under existing federal housing law for discriminating against minority groups. Because Section 8 recipients already tend to be tenants of color, LGBTQ folks, veterans or other protected groups, refusing to rent to people using Section 8 would have negative effects on those groups, even if that’s not the landlord’s intent.
“So right now in the city of Albuquerque, in the state of New Mexico, and in our country, an attorney can bring a lawsuit alleging that a landlord’s actions in declining vouchers has a disparate impact on those populations,” she said.
She added that attorneys tend not to bring those lawsuits, calling them “challenging,” but said banning Section 8 discrimination could protect landlords from being sued for discrimination while also helping tenants find housing.
City councilors said they needed more information on a few fronts before they’d be willing to vote on the measure. For one, they said they wanted a clearer picture of exactly how many tenants have vouchers but can’t find housing, how long it takes for federal Housing and Urban Development inspectors to approve a new apartment for a tenant and find out exactly why landlords are refusing Section 8 tenants.
Rachel Biggs, a spokesperson for Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, said the organization did a survey of 176 landlords who had fair-market-rate apartments for lease. Of them, just 35% said they were accepting Section 8 tenants.
The conversation will likely resume at the next meeting of the Council’s Finance and Government Operations Committee, which hasn’t been set, according to the city’s website, but is expected in about a month.
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