Friday, August 18, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Council opts to sue the state over housing discrimination beef

After months of the Texas Legislature seemingly taking shot after shot at the city of Austin, City Council is swinging back.

On Thursday, Council gave the go-ahead to Interim City Manager Elaine Hart to sue the state over a 2015 law that preempted city protections against housing discrimination for low-income residents.

Senate Bill 267 canceled out a 2014 amendment to the city’s Fair Housing Ordinance that made it illegal to refuse to sell or rent housing to anyone based on their source of income. The amendment was intended to expand opportunities for residents who receive federal Housing Choice Vouchers.

Standing in opposition to the proposed lawsuit was the Austin Apartment Association, which had also urged Council not to amend the ordinance three years ago. The group’s director of government relations, Paul Cauduro, fielded Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s question about what difficulties landlords face when they accept tenants who receive the vouchers.

Cauduro explained that the three-way agreement between property owner, tenant and the federal government is cumbersome, that the properties are subject to “repetitive and redundant inspections,” and that the program could be arbitrarily scuttled without warning.

Austin Tenants’ Council Executive Director Juliana Gonzales spoke in support of the item and reminded the members of an audit her group conducted in 2012.

“It showed that 91 percent of private landlords denied applicants because they were voucher holders,” Gonzales said, adding that she believes the rate of denials has only increased since the legislature overrode Austin’s ordinance.

John Henneberger with the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service complained that the state law enables the city’s glaring economic segregation.

“This is a cancer on this city that we must take a stand against,” proclaimed Henneberger.

Ultimately, Council voted 10-1 to initiate the lawsuit, with Troxclair the only member to vote against it.

After the vote, Council Member Greg Casar, who sponsored the item, had harsh words for the legislature, saying, “I believe that our state leaders did the wrong thing by enshrining discrimination in the form of Senate Bill 267. And unfortunately, that’s not a surprise. They’ve enshrined discrimination and broken federal law several times, I believe, in these last few legislative sessions.”

Photo by Euthman Ed Uthman (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

affordable housing: This general term refers to housing that is affordable to Austinites, with or without subsidy.

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Texas Legislature: The state’s legislative governing body composed of the House and Senate.

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