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Law protects low-income people from housing discrimination

When it comes to homelessness, it can seem like a huge, complex problem and it is. The number of homeless people keeps growing– but lasting answers, so far, have been allusive. Helpful changes are happening.

Thanks to a set of recently enacted state laws, we see some positive steps toward addressing certain aspects of the homeless and subsidized housing problem—something everyone working on the problems has been concerned about statewide.

In Grays Harbor, the best estimates are that up to 3,000 people are not stably housed. That is, some primarily rotate around staying with various friends and family, sleeping on couches, with no real place to call home. Of that number, some 500 to 700 are what you might consider “typically” homeless. That is, they are sleeping in cars and under bridges or tarps with no real shelter at all. Even in the foundation crawlspace under people’s homes!

Cassie Lentz, the housing coordinator for Grays Harbor County’s Public Health and Social Services Department, provided us with those numbers as well as some additional insights into some new laws that are intended to build capacity of available housing. One of the laws advocates for potential tenants and the other makes becoming a landlord to low-income people more incentivized. Homelessness is indeed very complex because we are human and individuals with different needs, but we feel these two pieces of legislation are a balanced beginning.

“One of the primary drivers of homelessness,” Cassie said, “is the disparity between the number of units of affordable housing and the number of people who need that housing. Simply put, there is not enough housing on the private market to meet the need. “Because of this supply issue, competition is fierce for those units that come available and are also affordable,” she said.

Cassie said that money is available through various programs to pay for part or all of the housing costs for people who would be otherwise homeless. And, there are also additional support programs through agencies like Coastal Community Action Program that address some of the reasons the homelessness occurred. For instance, there’s often help available in finding work and addressing mental health and addiction issues.

“However, historically landlords have been hesitant to rent to clients working with these housing programs, making it harder to find an available unit and move them out of homelessness even when there is program funding available to do so,” Cassie explained.

So, it became a sort of chicken-and-egg dilemma. Landlords didn’t want to risk renting to people with subsidized housing because of their fear of them being bad tenants and damaging the property or not paying because of the unstable lives they led in the past. And, these potential tenants couldn’t stabilize their lives easily without a place to call home and access to many of the life-changing programs that support them.

As incentive to participate, legislators have created the Landlord Mitigation Program which will make it much more attractive for landlords to rent to people with lower incomes and also addresses the landlord’s risks and concerns. Together, these two laws should make a big impact on homelessness. Here is some more information on the law that advocates for low-income people.

The new state law, which became effective Sept. 30, 2018, makes it illegal for landlords in Washington State to discriminate against tenants and potential tenants based on their source of income.

Under this new law, a landlord cannot:

  • Refuse to rent to someone because of their source of income.

  • Charge someone more rent than someone else because they receive some sort of public benefits.

  • Tell a potential tenant that the unit is not available when it is.

  • Advertise a property for rent only for tenants with certain types of income.

What’s all this about “source of income”? As we mentioned earlier, because of bad experiences in the past, many landlords were not eager to rent their properties to people on various forms of public assistance or benefits. This law addresses that bias while the companion law advocates for the landlord, making it less risky to rent to someone who receives benefits.

To be clear, the “source of income” being addressed includes

  • Federal, state and local public benefits, such as Social Security, Veteran’s benefits, retirement, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or Aged, Blind and Disabled (ABD).

  • Rent subsidies from federal, state or local housing programs, such as the so-called Section 8 voucher program, Share Aspire or Housing and Essential Needs (HEN).

  • Short-term rental assistance, for example from organizations like Catholic Community Services or Lutheran Community Services.

This new law also means that if someone is currently renting a place and their source of income changes so that they are now receiving public benefits, the landlord cannot:

  • End the lease or evict them simply because of that change in the source of income.

  • Treat someone differently than any other tenant who does not get benefits.

This law applies to all landlords as defined by the state Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA). However, it does not apply in situations such as

  • Farmworkers living in employer-provided housing

  • People getting housing in exchange for work

  • People living in hotels or motels.

This isn’t to say that this new law, RCW59.18.040, forces a landlord to rent to a certain person, Cassie said. “For instance if they have a policy that they don’t rent to people with felony records, they can still keep that policy. The landlord just can’t discriminate because someone is receiving public assistance.”

Often landlords require people to have an income that is two or three times what the rent is. (In fact, that’s the rough estimate that we tell people they should be paying for their housing costs.) However, with the new law, a landlord who uses the amount of a tenant’s household income in deciding whether to rent can only count the portion of rent this potential tenant would be paying out of their own pocket – not what is paid by something like a Section 8 voucher.

For example,

  • If a landlord requires that all their tenants have a monthly income that is twice the rent amount, and the rent is $1,200, but $900 is paid by some sort of public assistance, the landlord can only consider the $300 difference in determining income levels necessary. Therefore the tenant would need to make $600 a month ($300 x 2 = $600) to fit the landlord’s usual guidelines – not $2,400.

  • If a landlord requires that all their tenants have a monthly income that is three times the rent amount, and the rent is $1,000 a month, but the entire rent is paid by a voucher and none is paid directly by the tenant, the tenant is not required to have any income. ($0 x 3 = 0.)

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