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Source of income rule OK’d, lawsuit threatened

Friday, December 12, 2014 by Tyler Whitson

Starting in mid-January, Austin property owners will be barred from discriminating against potential renters based on their source of income. The Austin Apartment Association plans to file a lawsuit to block the new policy.

City Council unanimously passed the ordinance Thursday after hearing arguments from public speakers for and against it. Proponents believe it will open up housing choices for Section 8 voucher holders — benefiting people with disabilities and underserved minorities — while opponents say it would burden landlords.

The Austin Apartment Association sent out a news release shortly after the vote stating that it will file a lawsuit for an injunction against the ordinance, which it believes “is pre-empted by state law, is pre-empted by federal law and violates the Texas and U.S. constitutions.”

Council Member Mike Martinez explained the rationale behind the ordinance. “We hear from our community that we want to end homelessness, we want to create affordability,” he said. “Yet, here we are, with a true policy that affects things like affordability, like homelessness, like workforce housing, and we’re still faced with tremendous opposition and threats of lawsuits.”

Texas Apartment Association spokesman David Mintz pointed out that the ordinance mandates participation in Section 8, a voluntary federal rental subsidy program for low-income residents that he said “imposes burdensome requirements that differ significantly from the way conventional property owners deal with residents.”

Mintz added, “The top issue of (the Texas Apartment Association’s) affirmative legislative program for 2015 will be seeking a state law that pre-empts ordinances of this kind.”

Assistant City Attorney Patricia Link said she is “very satisfied” that the ordinance does not conflict with federal law. “It doesn’t require them to comply with Section 8,” she said. “All it says is that you cannot discriminate based on that basis, so we’re not taking what is a voluntary program and making it mandatory.”

Martinez said the ordinance would not just benefit renters. “This is not some boogeyman that’s going to come in and destroy your property or the process of renting your property,” he said. “This is our tax dollars and I’d say it’s an expansion of our economy, because it creates the opportunity for more of those federal tax dollars to be spent right here in Austin.”

As he indicated he might do in Tuesday’s Council work session, Council Member Bill Spelman proposed an amendment, which Council incorporated. It removed a provision of the ordinance that would have exempted property owners who do not own more than four dwelling units and do not use a property manager.

Spelman said the provision was unnecessary because there is already a section of the current city code that cuts that number down to three dwelling units and thus “already puts restrictions on the applicability of all of our anti-discriminatory sections.”

The ordinance takes effect Jan. 12.

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