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Council: Large complexes must take vouchers

Friday, October 3, 2014 by Jo Clifton

The Austin City Council Thursday took the first big step toward outlawing discrimination against people using housing vouchers to pay their rent. Austin is the first city in Texas to do so, and opponents said that the ordinance would face both legal and legislative challenges.

Council unanimously adopted the ordinance on first reading. However, on a vote of 5-2, it also adopted an amendment from Council Member Bill Spelman eliminating single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes from coverage.

Spelman explained that the reason for his amendment was that people renting single-family units, for example, might have less experience with leases and federal requirements. “They may be getting themselves into more trouble than somebody with more experience who works for a larger apartment company.”

Council Member Mike Martinez, one of the sponsors of the ordinance, responded that the amendment “goes directly against what we’re trying to do in this item, so I do not accept this amendment as friendly. If you’re going to take single-family dwellings, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes out of it, all you’re going to have left are apartments. So I do not support allowing discrimination on source of income in any dwelling.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo also voted against the amendment. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, a sponsor of the ordinance, accepted Spelman’s amendment as friendly.

Steve Adler – who, like Cole and Martinez, is running for mayor – told the Monitor, “I’m committed to access for Section 8 voucher holders, and this ordinance is one way to accomplish it. I would have voted for it.”

Adler noted that he told the Austin Neighborhoods Council he was opposed to an ordinance that would have required all rental properties to accept Section 8 vouchers, because it would include someone renting out a room or a granny flat, for example. He said he also supports a proactive approach on the part of the city to try to persuade those not covered by the ordinance to accept voucher tenants.

Spelman also included an amendment to prevent apartment owners from advertising that they do not accept Section 8 vouchers.

Following the vote, Robbie Robinson, president of the Austin Apartment Association, said if the ordinance is not changed significantly, Council can expect “hundreds of people” to attend the next meeting to voice their opposition to the ordinance.

David Mintz of the Texas Apartment Association said, “I can see us promoting legislation to pre-empt these type of ordinances … I’m pretty confident that will happen.”

But Kathy Stark of the Austin Tenants Council said people with vouchers are locked out of 80 to 90 percent of housing in Austin. The group did a study of apartment complexes with 50 or more units, finding that only a very small percentage of those would accept Section 8. In addition, most of the complexes were in neighborhoods that already had a lot of subsidized housing and tax credits, areas of town characterized as “low opportunity.”

Stark said, “I think once they start doing it, it won’t be as hard as they think it is. But they have resisted it so far.” Fewer than 6,000 families have housing vouchers, Stark said.

Asked whether she was concerned about landlords raising the rents or deposit requirements because of the ordinance, Stark said she did not believe that many landlords would raise rents. “Rents are already high. What moves the rent market is supply and demand. It always has.”

Two years ago, when the tenants organization did its study, a large percentage of properties were affordable enough for families with vouchers to live there. However, that is no longer true, Stark said. Section 8 vouchers cannot be used for very expensive apartments, and she noted what a lot of people know: “Rents are changing so fast it’s hard to keep up.”

(This story was updated Oct. 3 to reflect that Council Member Mike Martinez was not a sponsor of the ordinance Council approved on first reading.)

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