Tucson moves to ban discrimination against renters based on income sources
Housing Dep't seeks feedback on policy proposal; event Wednesday
Tucson is set to adopt a "source of income" protection for renters next month, putting in place a policy that would ban landlords from turning down tenants because they rely on housing vouchers or any other type of assistance. Housing officials are seeking public input ahead of a City Council vote in September.
The policy will make it unlawful to refuse to sell, rent or sublease housing because of a person’s lawful source of income, including child support, rental assistance, income from Social Security or disability insurance, veterans benefits, or any other form of governmental assistance, benefit, or subsidy, according to a draft ordinance.
Violations would be considered discrimination and enforced under the same city code that prohibits discrimination on basis of race, sex, disability and sexual orientation. Tenants would be able to file complaints with the city for source of income discrimination, and landlords could be fined as much as $2,500 and have to go through a conference and conciliation process with city officials.
The City Council will vote on and likely pass the source of income protection ordinance at their Sept. 20 meeting, officials said. Department of Housing and Community Development staff published clean and marked drafts of the income source protection measure online on Monday to gather public feedback via a survey available on the same webpage, which includes an FAQ.
"The people who will be impacted are people on fixed incomes," Midtown Councilman Steve Kozachik said. "It's going to be significant because there are so many people who are in a rental situation that are on fixed incomes."
The policy is "intended for people caught up in this wave of an exploding housing market," Kozachik said. His worries included out-of-state developers who want to increase rents and the thousands of city residents who receive Section 8 vouchers, the most common federal housing subsidy, along with the thousands more on the waiting list, he said.
"We don't have another tool in the tool kit (to protect renters) because of the state preemption on rent control," Kozachik said. Landlords should still have a right to get a return on their investment if they spend to improve apartments and need to increase the rent, he said, but source of income protection is "the only way we can attack the problem (of a lack of affordable housing) from the standpoint of protecting low-income people."
Two public information sessions about source of income protection and the draft ordinance will be hosted by the Department of Housing and Community Development in August. The sessions are required by HCD before presenting the ordinance to City Council, but HCD staff is also worried about how landlords will interpret the policy, a spokesperson said.
The first feedback session will be an in-person meeting on Wednesday, August 10, at 5:30 p.m. at the HCD campus, Sentinel Building, 320 N. Commerce Park Loop. Face masks will be required, and room capacity is limited.
Registration ahead of time is required. People should attend virtually if possible, housing officials said, as strong public interest and “considerable pushback” are expected.
The second session is a virtual meeting set for 5:30 pm on Tuesday, Aug. 16, via Zoom. Registration is also required to attend that session, via a separate link.
Housing options are too few
Landlords might mistakenly interpret the policy as forcing them to accept Section 8, also known as Choice Housing vouchers, which pays for private housing for low-income families, the elderly and disabled, an HCD spokesperson said.
However, tenants with vouchers or other assistance could still be turned down for other reasons that aren't illegal discrimination, such as bad rental or credit history or a criminal record. Landlords could even continue to turn down applicants because their monthly income is too low to afford the rent, just not because of the source of their income.
“Housing options for persons with federal housing assistance are too few,” according to a FAQ on income source protection by HCD. “Without housing options, those with a viable way to afford housing are left desperate and unable to secure safe and affordable housing.”
“The vast majority of Tucson landlords refuse to accept vouchers or other assistance, without regard to the tenant meeting other screening criteria,” according to the FAQ. “Providing a source of income protection not only helps eliminate discrimination but more importantly provides a wider range of housing choices.”
Although violations of the new policy would be treated like any other form of housing discrimination, “the city will first focus on education for landlords that unknowingly violate the ordinance,” according to a separate FAQ on the draft ordinance.
Landlords have told city officials that they're concerned about delays in housing assistance payments, an department spokesperson said, but HCD reports that it has successfully reduced the time it takes to deliver housing assistance payments from 39 days to 15 days.
Units also have to be inspected before landlords can see their Section 8 payments, which can lead to delays. HCD has shortened their inspection time from 13 to four days, the department reports.
HCD has a landlord support team that helps them complete Section 8 paperwork, prepare for inspections, get missing payments and deal with other tenant issues. The team is also active in trying to recruit more landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers.
Income source protection in HAST plan
Source of income protection is a policy initiative in the Housing Affordable Strategy of Tucson, or HAST, plan approved by City Council in December. It aims to make the local housing market more equitable and less expensive through city policies.
Kozachik brought up the idea of protecting against source of income discrimination at the Dec. 21, 2021 meeting, where the HAST plan was finalized. Kozachik wrote in a newsletter in late July that “hundreds of evictions later, we’re finally getting to it.”
He also reassured landlords that HCD staff are working hard to make sure they’re paid on time through Section 8 vouchers, saying “the city has an obligation to also up our game when it comes to how efficiently we administer our housing assistance dollars.
“Landlords have bills to pay too, so we can’t be making them wait on our process before they get the rents, they’re due,” Kozachik wrote. “The fact that we were awarded additional state funding for emergency rent assistance from the state is a testament to how well our housing folks are doing that work.”
Tucson would be the only city in Arizona to have a source of income protection ordinance, if the measure is passed by Council, according to the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.
Other Southwestern cities such as Denver, Alburquerque and Los Angeles adopted similar policies during the last three years. A few larger cities have had one in place longer; New York City adopted one 2008 while Chicago adopted one in 1990. Texas state law preempted such policies in 2015.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.