TACOMA – Tenants who scan Craigslist for rental homes find sharp disagreement among landlords – and not just about whether pets are great or gross.
Some advise: “Section 8 welcome.” Others warn: “No Section 8.”
Those are references to federal rent vouchers for poor, elderly and disabled tenants. “We do not accept felonies, misdemeanors of a violent nature, or evictions and we do not participate in the Section 8 program,” one Tacoma apartment complex says, while the ad for a Lakewood apartment cautions: “Sorry, we are not able to accept Section 8 or dogs.”
An initial welcome might not last, either. In August, the new owners of John Hannaman’s Kent apartment complex sent him a notice to move out on the last day of his lease. “We are no longer participating in the Section 8 Housing Program,” the letter says.
Seattle, unincorporated King County, Tumwater and other communities treat users of federal housing aid as a protected class similar to people who face discrimination because of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and other characteristics. Olympia is drafting a proposal that could come before the City Council within weeks.
Some states have similar protections, but not Washington.
Statewide regulation has been proposed off and on for at least a decade in the Legislature but has run into opposition from landlords. Now a bipartisan proposal to forbid landlords from rejecting tenants who have Section 8 vouchers or other forms of government aid is drawing attention in lawmakers’ ongoing 60-day session, but has an uphill climb.
In theory, rejecting Section 8 could already open a landlord to liability if racial minorities or other protected groups are disproportionately represented among voucher holders. But federal courts have split over whether that kind of indirect liability, known as “disparate impact,” should be a consideration for rejection of housing aid.
The lack of a state mandate leaves the decisions in the hands of thousands of landlords, often based on their own or others’ personal experiences.
Section 8 recipients are some of Jim Adrian’s best-behaved tenants, the Bremerton landlord said, in part because if they break the program’s rules they can lose their vouchers.
“They’ve actually got more at stake,” Adrian said.
A worse track record by tenants of Todd Monohon drove the Olympia landlord – “unfortunately” – to stop taking new Section 8 tenants.
Monohon said a common fear among landlords is that since tenants with vouchers have often fallen on hard times, they will be less ready to take care of homes and will cause more wear and tear on the properties.
“If their financial household’s in order, that’s the best predictor of how they’ll be able to manage their physical household,” Monohon said.
The federal program is voluntary. Landlords say proposed protections would effectively remove that choice.
A landlord group told a House committee recently that some ads disqualify Section 8 tenants because the rent is simply too high.
But an advocate for tenants told lawmakers the proposal wouldn’t require any landlords to lower rent and that it could be revised to clarify that fact. Advocates say landlords wouldn’t have to accept tenants who don’t meet their other qualifications.
Monohon said more regulation forces more spending on paperwork and staff and drives some landlords out of the rental market, and all of those things raise rent prices.
“The less freedom of choice that people have in the marketplace, the harder it is to offer housing that’s affordable,” he said.
Hannaman said he shouldn’t be judged by the benefits he receives.
He said he’s eligible for housing aid because of decades-old back and brain injuries from a vehicle crash while on patrol as a wildland firefighter.
Now 64, Hannaman said he has used Section 8 vouchers since 1990 and moved to Kent from Bellevue to find more affordable rent. The Lighthouse Apartments, a gated community, attracted him because it felt safe, he said.
When his landlord ordered him out last fall, Hannaman said the company offered him an apartment at a different complex – one he sees as plagued by crime. He requested reconsideration through an attorney, and the protest bought him a six-month lease, Hannaman said.
But he’s not sure what happens when that lease runs out in March.
A reporter’s call to the apartment complex wasn’t returned.
Hannaman said voucher holders shouldn’t be stigmatized as problem tenants. Low vacancy rates in many parts of the state have made it harder to find apartments.
“There are a lot of people who are homeless who have jobs and just can’t afford an apartment. It doesn’t mean they’re bad,” he said.
The difficulties are shared by recipients of other kinds of government assistance.
Thomas Green said he struggled to find housing years ago in Tacoma after a divorce, even though he had a disability check from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
One landlord wouldn’t count his disability payments as income, he said, while another pointed to the fact that he was unemployed despite government benefits that met income requirements.
“I couldn’t afford any more of the application fees so I just stayed in the homeless shelter, and finally around December somebody rented me out half of a garage,” recalled Green, whose left leg was partially paralyzed by a helicopter accident. He now works as a social worker and lives in Seattle.
The proposal in the Legislature would bar rejection of tenants solely because of government-provided income, regardless of the type of benefits. Housing advocates say state housing assistance, disability payments and welfare should be treated the same as any other income.
Advocates for the measure have a powerful ally in House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, who is a champion of anti-homelessness programs.
“People need to find housing, and just because they happen to get a, say, disability check or something else like that, that should not bar them from getting a decent house,” Chopp said recently.
They also have a Republican backing the measure in the GOP-controlled Senate. Federal Way Sen. Mark Miloscia, who first backed the bill when he was a Democrat in the House, said he’s trying to bring all sides to a compromise and would likely wait for the House to act first.
Senators in a recent hearing discussed exempting the smallest landlords or scaling the proposal back to cover only Section 8 tenants.
Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, chairs the committee that oversees housing. At the hearing, he questioned whether a government “hammer” is needed or if landlords merely need to be educated about their options.
House Bill 1565 cleared the House committee Feb. 4 with all Democrats in support and all Republicans opposed. Rep. Jay Rodne, R-Snoqualmie, argued many government aid programs are voluntary and there’s no reason housing vouchers should be different.
The measure is sponsored by Rep. Timm Ormsby, a Spokane Democrat who’s also a landlord with four rentals. He linked the proposed requirement to a 2014 move by the Legislature that could benefit landlords. Lawmakers set aside 45 percent of a major source of anti-homelessness funding – fees charged for recording real-estate documents – to go to private, for-profit landlords.
“We have given them an opportunity to access state dollars, consistent state dollars,” Ormsby told fellow lawmakers at the House hearing, “and we’re asking landlords now to be willing participants and good-faith participants.”
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