Original Publication by Bill Bush from The Columbus Dispatch.
Columbus landlords could face jail if they deny Section 8 tenants a shot at housing
The house in the 300 block of East 14th Street in Columbus has two full baths, off-street parking, a washer and dryer, is pet-friendly — and includes a disclaimer to prospective renters that is common among the city’s rental ads: “No Section 8,” meaning people subsidized by federal housing vouchers need not apply.
But those days are about to come to an end after the Columbus City Council on Monday approved a package of housing legislation that includes protection for renters from “income discrimination,” particularly outlawing the practice of denying low-income residents leases if they rely on federal Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 8 housing vouchers.
The ordinance also protects those who rely on child support, spousal support or public assistance.
The massive HUD voucher program largely has replaced the city’s large and problem-ridden publicly owned housing developments of the past. The Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority is funding an additional 1,000 vouchers this year, but still has a waiting list for vouchers of about 24,000 people.
The ordinance approved by Council — similar to one approved in September by the Bexley City Council — is expected to affect thousands of rental units in the capitol city, opening up many neighborhoods that were previously off-limits.
“We have to do more to protect every resident in the city, especially to those households of color subject to greater discrimination,” said Councilwoman Shayla Favor, who pushed for the legislation.
A landlord found guilty of refusing to rent based on source of income would be guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, according to the city’s website.
The ordinance prohibits landlords from refusing to rent or making any distinctions or restrictions in the “price, terms, conditions, fees, or privileges” based on the renter’s sources of income. Landlords can’t represent to a person that a dwelling is not available for inspection or rental if it in fact is, and if an operator requires that a prospective or current tenant must meet a certain threshold level of income, any sources of income in the form of a rent voucher or subsidy must be included in the calculation.
A 2016 study in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, found that the Section 8 “Housing Choice Voucher Program” was created to expand access to housing for low-income households by providing a rental subsidy that allows them to find housing in the private rental market, but that “across the United States its participants are clustered in racially segregated, low opportunity areas.”
Federal “fair market rent” regulations limit a voucher user to units with rent under a calculated limit, often leading holders to reside in impoverished neighborhoods. But finding a landlord that will accept a voucher “can also be very difficult,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
“Countless advertisements on Craigslist and in newspapers boldly declare ‘No Section 8.’ The tenant could pass an onslaught of background and credit checks and still be denied simply based on their source of payment,” according to the ACLU website.
With 58% of the federal HUD vouchers issued in Columbus used by Black residents, Section 8 discrimination has become a proxy for racial discrimination, Favor said during Monday’s meeting. She noted that the city is currently in a major housing crisis.
While several local housing advocates testified in support of the new city code, no one testified in opposition. The Columbus Apartment Association didn’t return telephone calls seeking comment left with two officials Tuesday morning.
The Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority, which administers over 12,500 federal vouchers throughout Franklin County, supports the city’s move. “By opening additional housing options, we are providing an opportunity for the residents of Columbus to choose where they live,” Scott Scharlach, the authority’s chief operating officer, said in a written statement.
The council passed two other pro-renter ordinances, one that requires operators with five or more units to allow security-deposit payments to be made in monthly installments over up to six months, and one that requires landlords to give written receipts for all security deposits and rent payments.
The three ordinances passed unanimously, with the exception of the one dealing with security-deposit installments. Council member Priscilla Tyson abstained on that one without public explanation.
Although the ordinances indicate the changes will go into effect in the standard 30 days after passage, the council said in a news release that the changes will take effect July 1. The council plans to hire an outside consultant to first conduct educational outreach to landlords and tenants.
In other business Monday, the Council approved $5.4 million in general fund dollars to the Community Shelter Board to support individuals and families who are experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, homelessness. Over half the money will be distributed by CSB to partners who operate emergency shelters and provide prevention and transition services, while the remainder will be used for crisis response, street outreach and permanent housing support.
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