The Seal of the State of New Mexico inside the Roundhouse on Jan. 10, 2024. (Photo by Anna Padilla for Source NM)
A push to prohibit landlords across the state from turning away tenants whose rent is partially paid by government subsidies narrowly failed in a legislative committee meeting Monday afternoon.
The bill would add “source of income” to a list of protected categories in the New Mexico Human Rights Act, alongside race, sexual orientation and other characteristics on which it is illegal to discriminate. It would mean that landlords could not legally turn away tenants who carried Section 8 vouchers or other subsidies.
Rep. Kathleen Cates (D-Rio Rancho), whose day job is as a real estate agent, sponsored the legislation and spent more than an hour defending the bill as one of many tools needed to address the ongoing housing crisis in New Mexico. She said refusing tenants based on having rent subsidies is just the latest version in a long history of housing discrimination, based in part on an assumption that tenants with vouchers are bad tenants.
The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee voted 6-5 against sending the bill forward, with two Democrats and four Republicans voting against it. Cates said in an interview Tuesday that as much as she cares about her legislation, she won’t re-introduce the bill this session. She hopes November elections will mean a shakeup in the committee next year.
“I will absolutely reintroduce it. But this year, I would have to reintroduce it with that specific group in the committee,” she said. “And I don’t believe any member of that committee is willing to change their mind.”
Dozens of advocates spoke up on both sides of the legislation, including leaders with the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness in favor of the bill, and lobbyists for the New Mexico Apartment Association and realtors associations against it.
Federal voucher programs often have a deadline by which a recipient must find housing or risk losing them. A report by the Legislative Finance Committee last year found that, statewide, 18% of federal housing vouchers go unused. In Gallup, Rio Arriba County and Albuquerque, more than a quarter go unused. One of the reasons was a “lack of landlords willing to accept vouchers,” according to the report.
“Source of income” discrimination has already been banned in Bernalillo County, Albuquerque and Doña Ana County. Elsewhere in the state, including Santa Fe, it’s common for online apartment listings to contain the phrase “No Section 8 allowed.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham included the bill on her list of priorities for the session, allowing it to be heard this 30-day session despite not being budget-related.
It’s another one of her housing-related priorities that has yet to advance through a legislative committee. A bill she supported that would create a statewide housing office was pulled from a committee late Friday afternoon, as well, and has not been re-introduced.
The discrimination bill received pushback from lobbyists for the New Mexico Apartment Association, landlords and realtor groups, who spoke at the hearing to say it would impose an unnecessary paperwork burden and force them to rent to unruly tenants.
Supporters say a statewide ban could curb homelessness, reduce the concentration of poverty in certain neighborhoods and prevent people who received Section 8 vouchers from running out of time.
The debate in the committee centered primarily on whether changing the state’s Human Rights Act to ban “source-of-income discrimination” would have implications outside of the rental market, including for mortgage lenders or employers, and whether child support, alimony or other non-labor income sources would apply.
Several members of the committee also said they saw the legislation as government overreach in how landlords conduct their businesses. Rep. Mark Duncan (R-Kirtland) said a bad experience with one tenant when he was a landlord prompted him to turn away tenants with vouchers.
“One day a lady that I had been renting to let her wife beater husband back in, and he destroyed my property,” he said. “That was the last Section 8 I ever took.”
Duncan didn’t provide additional details behind his allegation. Cates said in an interview she was shocked by his comment, which she said showed the prejudicial mindset that is typical of some landlords, one that has echoed over decades with different groups of people.
In the committee, she responded that anecdotes like Duncan’s can’t be used to justify discrimination.
“I know the horror stories, and they are real. They are not made up. And I understand that,” Cates told the committee. “But I can say that about every type of protected class. Does that mean that I’m allowed to discriminate (on) them based on those stories? I cannot.”
At least 11 current lawmakers, not including Duncan, report ownership of residential properties, according to a review last year of legislative financial disclosures by the Santa Fe Reporter.
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