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Spokane City Council passes new human rights protections, delays protections for renters who use subsidies

UPDATED: Mon., March 27, 2017, 11:13 p.m.

The Spokane City Council approved on Monday a legislative package protecting residents’ civil rights.

In a concession to landlords, the council delayed a new rule outlawing housing discrimination against people who use subsidies to pay rent.

City Councilwoman Amber Waldref asked for the delay until July 1 “to make sure everyone understands the rules, and give input into the rules, so that we can enforce it effectively at the city.”

Several Spokane landlords testified Monday night that they supported the council’s aim to eliminate discrimination in housing, but they also said they needed to ensure potential tenants could pay without fear of legal reprisals. The ordinance alters the city’s definition of discrimination to include renting decisions based on “the use or eligibility for the use of housing choice or other subsidy program or alternative source of income.”

City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, the main sponsor of the bill, said it wasn’t intended to hinder screening efforts after an hour-and-a-half of testimony from supporters and opponents.

“Landlords can still do credit checks, criminal background checks, rental history checks, and then decide whether or not the person is a good fit,” she said.

Waldref’s request to delay enforcement of the housing discrimination measure passed on a 5-2 vote, with City Council President Ben Stuckart and City Councilman Breean Beggs opposed. Stuckart said some of the public testimony Monday night about people who receive vouchers was discriminatory and pointed to the need for the rules to be in place immediately.

“If we say no to any type of vouchers, we are discriminating, and we are creating that perceptual problem,” Stuckart said.

Under the amendment, complaints may not be brought against Spokane landlords alleging discrimination based on acceptance of vouchers until after July 1.

Supporters of the ordinance said it would eliminate the initial hurdle to renting that vouchers create, ensuring vulnerable populations have access to housing.

City Councilman Mike Fagan cast the lone vote against the entire legislative package, which reaffirmed a ban on Spokane police officers questioning suspects about their immigration status. Fagan read from a statement including how much illegal immigration cost Washington taxpayers, and crimes committed and allegedly committed by illegal residents, prompting some members of the audience to stand and turn their backs to him.

“I really appreciate that we’ve got people that have ended up turning their back on me,” Fagan said, singling one of the members out for refusing to stand during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the meeting.

City Councilman Breean Beggs, before voting in favor of the entire human rights package, said the panel’s support of the rules illustrated their continued support of justice for all citizens.

“Passing a law doesn’t change people’s hearts, and their minds, and their biases,” Beggs said. “But it does set a statement for what we believe in, in Spokane.”