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Martinez seeks to expand source-of-income regs

Thursday, November 6, 2014 by Michael Kanin

On Tuesday, Council Member Mike Martinez told his colleagues at an abbreviated Austin City Council work session that he expects to introduce an amendment that would expand the potential breadth of the city’s pending ban on source-of-income housing discrimination.

The item will be considered by council members today. If approved, the city will add “source of income” as something that should not be considered by housing providers, along with race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, familial status, disability, marital status, student status, creed and national origin.

“I am certainly sympathetic to some of the issues that are being brought forward by (opponents of the ban), and I am happy to incorporate some of those,” Martinez said. “But I think when we take out duplexes and fourplexes and all single-family dwellings, it really is going completely en contra to what we are trying to accomplish here.”

He also reminded his colleagues that “for the first time in a long time, the Housing Authority (of Austin) has actually opened up the waiting list to allow people to sign up to get on the waiting list for vouchers.” He noted that a limited ban would be “completely counterintuitive to trying to get those folks into an affordable living environment in our city.”

Martinez later added that he based the language of his proposed amendment on a letter sent by HousingWorks Austin’s Mandy DeMayo to Mayor Lee Leffingwell and members of the Council. In the letter, DeMayo suggests that Council members should “focus on the small property owners (her emphasis).”

“A potential amendment could exempt any landlord (her emphasis) who owns less than five rental units, provided that the landlord does not contract with a professional management entity,” DeMayo offers in her letter. “Other states and localities have mitigated against misuse of this exemption by including clarifying language such as ‘in any case in which a person has a legal, equitable, or beneficial interest in more than one legal entity that owns residential rental property, the rental units of all such legal entities shall count for the purposes of this exemption.'”

Supporters of the code amendment that bars housing discrimination based on source of income argue that it would make it easier for recipients of housing vouchers to find homes. Opponents believe the restrictions imposed via the ban could be onerous. They have also suggested that they could take legislative and/or legal action if Council members take unfavorable action.

DeMayo told the Monitor on Monday that her suggestion contemplates the notion that the proposal could be too much for “mom-and-pop” property owners. She explained that it attempts to deal with the issue by exempting unmanaged properties, if owners hold less than five units.

Austin Board of Realtors Director of Governmental and Community Affairs Emily Chenevert told the Monitor that the five-unit threshold “would help offset the disproportionate burden of program participation requirements on small-scale properties.” Still, she did not wholly welcome the idea.

“The proposal HousingWorks has put forth is an attempt to meet the challenges we have outlined in our previous statements on this issue but does not take into account the immense burden of enforcing an ordinance that would require a micro level of tracking,” Chenevert wrote in an email. “The Code Compliance Department has stated time and time again that properly enforcing our property maintenance code is hindered by their inability to track where owners reside, who the owner of a property is and how to contact the owner. ABoR cannot imagine the City staff will have any easier time determining how many properties one owner owns in such a way they can equally enforce this new policy. It seems an unreasonable alternative from the perspective of ease of application and ensuring the law is upheld once passed.”

Chenevert added that “market research reveals that most rents for single-family residences and one-to-fourplexes are unlikely to qualify for participation in tenant-based rental assistance programs.” She also said that data pulled from ABoR’s MLS system in summer 2014 suggests that “[t]he median rent for single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in Austin is $1,595.”

That, said Chenevert, means that “the majority of these units are unlikely to qualify for participation in the rent reasonableness study necessary for programs such as HACA’s Housing Choice Vouchers program. Fair market rent for a three-bedroom home in Austin for 2014 as defined by HUD is $1,454.”

Council members took a step toward approving the ban in early October. At that meeting, Council Member Bill Spelman introduced an amendment that softened the ban by removing single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes from the list of properties included in the measure. That passed 5-2.

At the time, Martinez signaled his concern with Spelman’s amendment. He argued that it “goes directly against what we’re trying to do in this item. … 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. … I do not support allowing discrimination on source of income in any dwelling.”

Tuesday, Martinez told his colleagues he believes that “we just basically erased a whole ton of work that went into this by applying it to only multifamily structures.”

Martinez appears to have support for his amendment from at least Council Members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison.

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, who has co-sponsored the item, said that the amendment wasn’t only supported by critics of the proposal, but that it “came as best-practices for actual implementation in some of the peer cities that have done this.” Cole further suggested that the Housing Authority of the City of Austin had supported the Spelman change based on the notion of the effort being “a gradual approach.”

“It’s sort of like, if you hit them with too much, it’s not going to work,” Cole added.

However, when pushed by Tovo, who seemed surprised at HACA support of Spelman’s amendment, Cole said she would investigate further.

A representative from HACA did not return a phone call requesting comment.

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