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Tucson bans landlords from turning down tenants who use housing vouchers, gov't benefits

Tucson bans landlords from turning down tenants who use housing vouchers, gov't benefits

City Council votes unanimously to ban 'source of income' discrimination, protecting Section 8 & Social Security recipients

  • The Martin Luther King, Jr. Apartments in Downtown Tucson are among the few that accept federal Section 8 housing vouchers in Tucson.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comThe Martin Luther King, Jr. Apartments in Downtown Tucson are among the few that accept federal Section 8 housing vouchers in Tucson.

Tucson is barring landlords from denying housing applicants because of their source of income, protecting people who can’t afford rising rents without housing vouchers or government assistance. The City Council voted unanimously to pass the ban on "source of income" discrimination on Tuesday.

The city policy, which goes into effect immediately, makes 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.

Mayor Regina Romero said that funds from Section 8 vouchers and any other federal, state or local assistance “are as good as Raytheon making the same amount of money.”

“I have heard story after story after story of people that have housing vouchers who come to me and tell me ‘they don’t accept Section 8,’” Romero said. “Our residents, no matter how they pay for rents, deserve to be housed.”

Midtown Councilman Steve Kozachik made the motion to pass the ordinance. He had been advocating the change since last December, when the Council passed a Housing Affordability Strategy for Tucson meant to lower housing costs by laying out a series of policy guidelines and goals, including blocking discrimination by landlords based on the source of a renter's income.

“It’s not OK to tell someone that just because they’re getting a helping hand from (Section 8) on their rent that they’re taking them out as a tenant,” Kozachik said. “Income source discrimination should not exist in the city of Tucson.”

The call to the audience for the meeting was also full of speakers, including landlords, who favored the income source protection.

"I strongly support this... a dollar you get from Social Security will buy the same amount of anything as a dollar you get a coder from Silicon Valley," landlord Stephanie Zill said, "I hope this is just the first step."

Tucson is now the first and only Arizona city to have a source of income protection policy in place. The move has been seen by some city officials as a way around state laws preventing local rent control ordinances.

Although the policy will help low-income tenants find housing, Kozachik admitted that “this is not going to solve our need for affordable housing.”

Section 8 vouchers are “very simply a rent assistance program. It doesn’t forcibly reduce rents, and it doesn’t prevent landlords from raising rents and pricing tenants out of the housing market,” he said at the City Council regular meeting on Tuesday.

“Our hands are effectively tied at the state level when it comes to rent control,” Kozachik said. “This is an effort to keep people housed.”

Kozachik also recognized that “we need to increase the housing stock” as he called for more action on top of the income source protection.

“Every week we hear about a rent increase, the effect of which is people losing their home,” Kozachik said. “Every community nationwide is facing this issue.”

At the front of mind for city officials are the thousands of city residents who receive Section 8 vouchers, the most common type of federal housing subsidy. Very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled can use Section 8, also known as Housing Choice Vouchers, to pay for private housing.

Section 8 vouchers “can be a powerful tool to induce a de-concentration of poverty,” West Side Councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz said at the Tuesday meeting, saying housing vouchers are “allowing families the choice to move to neighborhoods with safer streets, better schools and well-paying jobs.”

Thousands of Tucson residents are also on Section 8 waiting lists, Kozachik told the Tucson Sentinel in August, when the city was holding public information meetings ahead of the passage of the ordinance.

Speeding up Section 8

Tucson housing officials had been worried during the public meeting period that landlords might mistakenly interpret the policy as forcing them to accept Section 8. However, tenants with assistance can still be turned down for 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.

“The vast majority of Tucson landlords refuse to accept vouchers or other assistance, without regard to the tenant meeting other screening criteria,” according to Tucson’s Department of Housing and Community Development. “Housing options for persons with federal housing assistance are too few…Providing a source of income protection not only helps eliminate discrimination but more importantly provides a wider range of housing choices.”

Violations of the new policy by landlords will 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.

Tucson will hold off on handing down the harsher penalties for violations while the policy is still new, Housing officials said during the public comment period, as the department wants to first educate landlords who unknowingly violate the ordinance.

Landlords have told city officials that they're concerned about delays in housing assistance payments, an HCD spokesperson said, but the city, which is responsible for processing checks and inspecting and approving properties for Section 8, has successfully cut the time it takes to deliver housing assistance payments from 39 days to 15 days.

Units have to be inspected before landlords can see their Section 8 payments, which can lead to those delays. HCD has shortened their inspection time from 13 days to just four, the department reported.

Tucson 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. Before the ordinance passed, the team was trying to recruit more landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers.

Many of the biggest cities in the U.S. — including Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago — have source of income protections, especially in the Midwest. Several blue states, including California, New York and Massachusetts, have statewide protections, while red states Texas and Indiana have state laws the preempt those protections though Dallas and Houston have them.

Source of income protection policies for renters have been around in the U.S. since the 1970s, with cities such as Redmond, Wash., Cincinnati, Ohio, and Washington D.C. passing theirs in the early part of the decade. New York City was Southwestern states and cities, however, including California and Denver, have passed during the past two decades.

Bennito L. Kelty is’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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