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Proposal would prohibit Spokane landlords from discriminating against renters for using subsidies

UPDATED: Mon., March 13, 2017, 10:57 a.m.

FILE – Spokane City Hall. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE – Spokane City Hall. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Tenants could not be discriminated against for accepting housing vouchers under a new human rights legislative package the City Council will consider later this month.

The legislation, sponsored by City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, expands the city’s protections against discrimination to include “the use or eligibility for the use of housing choice or other subsidy program or alternative source of income.”

Housing choice is a federal program that extends vouchers to low-income families, older and disabled residents seeking private housing, and is one of the “Section 8” package of programs administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Stratton said the provision was included after tenants raised the issue during work with Mayor David Condon’s Housing Quality Task Force, which issued its final report last year.

“That was a takeaway from that group, that there are so many ways that people earn income that they shouldn’t be discriminated against because of that,” Stratton said.

Terri Anderson, a Spokane-based community organizer for the Tenants Union of Washington State, said some landlords advertise rental openings with a declaration that no tenants who accept subsidies will be considered, a practice that would end under the new ordinance.

“The vacancy rate in Spokane is hovering around 1 percent,” Anderson said. “We’re really in a crisis mode for particularly low-income residents.”

Landlords participated in the task force process that produced Stratton’s proposal, said Steve Corker, a board member of the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest and former City Council member. Corker said landlords need to be able to ensure potential tenants have support for the length of their lease, and any policies aimed at prohibiting discrimination should not prevent them from doing so.

“I don’t think anybody is against ending discrimination, but we also need to make sure we’re not putting an unfair burden on the landlords, or an unfair burden on the tenants,” Corker said.

The housing discrimination provision is part of a larger legislative package consolidating existing city protections against discrimination in policing and employment, as well as affirming the rights of those who use service animals and prohibiting surveillance. Most of the laws already were on the books, Stratton said, but were spread out throughout the city’s municipal code, making it difficult for citizens to find the rules and file complaints.

“It allowed us to enhance some of the pieces of it, better define some things, and it also lays out a path for assistance,” Stratton said.

Four of her colleagues on the City Council already have signed off on the measure, almost assuring passage at a meeting that will take place later this month, Stratton said.

The changes keep in place the prohibition against a religious registry, a measure originally included in drafts of the new human rights ordinance that was expedited by City Council President Ben Stuckart over what he called concerns by certain religious groups about the rhetoric of President Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Political opponents accused Stuckart of grandstanding by calling for a vote on the measure separately in front of a packed City Council chamber in January.

Stratton’s ordinance also leaves in place what the city refers to as its “non-biased policing” ordinance, which prohibits police officers from questioning a person about their immigration status without cause. City officials, including Condon, have said the policy does not make Spokane a “sanctuary city,” which Trump has targeted for ignoring federal laws and threatened to reduce funding.

The new title would require the city’s nine-member volunteer Human Rights Commission to prepare quarterly reports about the types of complaints staff have fielded. Stratton said that provision will give city officials a better idea of what’s prompting the most concern about human rights protections in the city.

John Lemus, president of the Spokane Human Rights Commission, said the organization “is in full support of the ordinance,” which also authorizes his group to conduct some investigations of their own on complaints brought in by Spokane residents. Complaints currently are mediated or investigated by state agencies.

“This is something that the commission would support if the funding was made available,” Lemus wrote in an email Thursday.

City Councilman Mike Fagan, the lone vote against many of the council’s recent actions expanding protections for certain groups including the policing ordinance, said he’d likely be voting against the legislative package, though he agreed with some of its aims.

“I appreciate the effort, to consolidate these into one inclusive document,” Fagan said. But he said he was concerned about landlords not being able to ask about the source of a tenant’s income under the new regulations.

Corker said that if a landlord is able to ask about the amount and source of a person’s income, then they should also be able to ask about the source of a subsidy, whether it’s a parent, a scholarship or some other government program.

“That’s something that’s going to be debated” as the issue comes before the City Council for a vote, Corker said.

Stratton called meetings between representatives for tenants and landlords “positive” and that both sides can benefit from learning about the perspective and responsibilities of the other.

Spokane’s laws specifically protecting human rights are unique among local governments. Spokane County and the cities of Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake have not adopted any local ordinances specifically banning discrimination in housing, employment or other public services, though there are controlling state and federal policies. Airway Heights prohibits discrimination in city employment, business transactions and on public property in its municipal code.

The City Council is scheduled to consider the human rights ordinance changes at their regularly scheduled meeting March 27.

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Then and Now: Comstock Park

James M. Comstock, born in 1838 in Wisconsin, arrived in Spokane in time to witness the great fire of 1889 and start Spokane Dry Goods with Robert Paterson. It became the Crescent, Spokane’s premier department store for a century. He also worked in real estate and owned other businesses. He served a term as Spokane mayor, starting in 1899. James Comstock died in 1918.