The city of Spokane is facing an uphill battle to educate landlords on a new law prohibiting discrimination against tenants based on the source of their income.
Under the law, which goes into effect Sept. 1, landlords could not have blanket policies refusing to rent to people with housing vouchers. Similar laws have been passed in Seattle, unincorporated King County, Bellevue and Redmond, according to the Tenants Union of Washington.
Voucher programs allow a third party, usually the federal government, to pay some or all of a tenant’s rent. The largest program by far is Section 8, run through the Spokane Housing Authority, which has over 5,000 voucher holders across six counties. Tenants who are low-income, elderly or disabled may quality for a voucher.
City staff hosted two sessions last week fielding questions and concerns from landlords and tenants and clarifying what the law does and doesn’t allow, as well as how it will be enforced.
Tenants shared stories of being repeatedly turned away from housing by landlords who don’t want to go through extra steps to accept a voucher, while landlords said their biggest barrier is the amount of time a unit can remain vacant while waiting for housing inspections and paperwork to come through.
Ed Cushman, president of the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest, was among the people on the city’s panel discussing the new law. He said he’s been a landlord for 40 years and has never taken a voucher. Many landlords fear the change out of a place of ignorance, he said, and he hopes better education about how vouchers work will alleviate some of that.
“If you have an uncertainty in your life and that’s your livelihood, that creates a tension,” he said.
Though the law allows a civil fine of up to $261 per violation, the city’s goal is to educate landlords and work with them toward resolution.
Fines and penalties are aimed at landlords who are “habitually, intentionally violating Title 18,” the section of the city’s municipal code dealing with human rights, said Dawn Kinder, director of the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services Department, which is charged with enforcing the law.
What does the law prohibit?
Landlords can’t discriminate against tenants solely because their income comes from Section 8 or another housing voucher program. Housing ads with blanket statements like “no vouchers accepted” will be illegal.
That doesn’t mean landlords are obligated to rent to those tenants, however.
Tenants can be denied if they don’t meet other lease requirements that apply to everyone, including credit and background checks or income levels. If a tenant’s voucher doesn’t pay enough to cover the cost of an apartment or if the landlord wants a shorter lease term than the one year required by Section 8, those are also legal reasons to deny an application.
“If they do not meet the terms of your lease, you are not obligated to adjust your lease for that tenant,” said Kinder.
To whom does the law apply?
The law applies to any landlord renting property inside Spokane city limits. Landlords who are renting a portion of a house they also own and live in are exempt, so long as they don’t own other rental properties.
How does a federal housing voucher work?
Tenants who qualify based on income and other factors are issued a voucher with a maximum amount for a given number of bedrooms. The tenant’s total rent plus utility costs cannot exceed that amount.
Once a tenant finds a room they want to rent, the unit must be inspected by the Spokane Housing Authority. Inspections are free, and the housing authority tries to complete them within a week, said Dave Scott, the housing authority’s director of the voucher program.
A unit must be vacant to be inspected, something brought up by several landlords who said they’re concerned about losing a week of rent while waiting for an inspection before a new tenant can move in. In a market with historically low vacancy rates, landlords have other options.
“There’s already other people standing there ready to turn in their applications,” said Kathleen Nichols, owner of River City Management.
Scott said if landlords know a tenant is moving out, they can schedule an inspection in advance for move-out day. So long as everything belonging to the prior tenant is gone, the housing authority can move forward.
“If I drive up and they’re taking the last couch out of that place, I’ll inspect it,” Scott said.
Housing vouchers are issued for one year, so landlords must sign a yearlong lease with tenants. Landlords must also sign a contract with the housing authority before they can get paid.
The tenant pays their portion of rent directly to the landlord, and the housing authority sends a check for their portion directly to the landlord.
Scott said he knows the program can be frustrating for landlords and wants to hear from people with questions or suggestions for improvement.
“We don’t have a program if we don’t have a landlord,” he said.
What can landlords ask for?
Landlords can ask prospective tenants to provide proof of income for any source of income. There’s no restriction on asking tenants if they have a housing voucher, a concern voiced by some early opponents of the law.
Scott and others at the city forums recommended asking prospective tenants with housing vouchers to bring all their paperwork with them when they apply, including the utilities worksheet and income calculation sheet. That can avoid back-and-forths where tenants aren’t sure how much their voucher covers.
What happens if someone violates the law?
Anyone, including case workers and prospective tenants, can report a suspected violation of the ordinance to the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services Department. Violations must be reported within 30 days for the city to take action.
The city aims to have an online complaint form on its website no later than Sept. 15.
Terri Anderson, a Spokane-based organizer with the Tenants Union of Washington, said her largest concern was that landlords who live in other cities or out of state would have no idea the ordinance was going into effect. She’s working to educate tenants and case managers so they know what’s not allowed and can stand up for themselves.
“We’re just real worried that not enough tenants are going to know,” she said.
Once a suspected violation is reported, the city will forward complaints to the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance for investigation. If it’s determined a landlord violated the law, the person who filed the complaint can opt for mediation through Northwest Mediation Services, or for the violation to be forwarded to the city prosecutor’s office.
The prosecutor’s office will decide which cases to prosecute or sanction, with a focus on repeat or willful offenders, Kinder said. The hope is to work with landlords to educate them and correct issues, not penalize them.
Kinder’s department will also issue regular reports about complaints received to the City Council, the Spokane Human Rights Commission and the city administration.
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