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Rights commission recommends source of income as protected class

Tuesday, July 29, 2014 by Gene Davis

After hearing stories from low-income residents about how they were vilified while trying to use housing vouchers, the Austin Human Rights Commission last night backed a recommendation to make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against people based on the source of their income.

The vote followed an hour of public testimony and two previous meetings that invited comment on whether the city should add “source of Income” as a protected class in the housing discrimination ordinance. Race, gender, sexual orientation and religion are already among the established protected classes in the ordinance.

In practice, supporters say that having source of income as a protected class would mean the estimated 15,000 5,800 Austinites who receive housing vouchers would face less discrimination and have easier access to housing.

Austinites with housing vouchers “are laughed out of the majority of places,” said Kathy Stark, executive director of the Austin Tenants Council. “It’s as bad as having a felony on your record.”

Housing Works Austin executive director Mandy DeMayo said that Austin’s historically high rents and occupancy rate means landlords get to be choosy about their tenants.

Jennifer McPhail, a housing voucher recipient, said she knows many people who have been victims to landlords who discriminated against housing vouchers, which were previously known as Section 8 vouchers.

“This is a civil rights issue, this is a human rights issue, and for too long we have ignored it,” she said.

Meanwhile, Rachel Fisher of the Austin Apartment Association told commissioners that adding source of income as a protected class would place additional costs on landlords, who would in turn pass on the costs to tenants via raised rents. She said the amendment would make landlords more vulnerable to fair housing claims, regardless of the legitimacy of the claims.

“The possible benefits don’t outweigh the costs,” she said.

However, Stark said she doubted the proposed code amendment would significantly hurt landlords’ pocketbooks.

“Property owners were not driven out of business when they passed non-discrimination against families or people with disabilities,” she said. “What drives the market is the market. (Landlords) are in it to make income and are in it to make a profit. As long as there is money to be made, the landlords will be there.”

Source of income is not a new issue for the city. The Affordable Housing Siting Policy Working Group recommended adding source of income as a protected class to the city in 2011. The issue picked up steam this April, when City Council directed City Manager Marc Ott to process the source income draft amendment to stakeholders. The directive, in turn, led to the public stakeholders meetings and Human Rights Commission vote.

If City Council approves the code amendment, Austin would join 11 other states and 27 local jurisdictions that have some form of source of income protection.

“This is not a very new concept,” said John Babiak, an administrator with the Austin Equal Employment and Fair Housing Office. “It’s been in place elsewhere for a long, long time.”

The Austin Community Development Commission will next consider the draft ordinance at its Aug. 12 meeting.

This post was corrected to reflect a lower figure for the number of Austinites who receive housing vouchers. That number is 5800, not 15,000 as previously reported.

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