‘Common sense’ or blow to landlords? Kansas City fight brews over tenant discrimination
By Mike Hendricks Updated December 11, 2023
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Stacey West felt like she’d won the lottery. Nearly three years after applying for rental assistance, she was awarded a federal housing voucher that would help West and her three kids move out of her mother’s two-bedroom apartment and find a place of their own. “The kids were so excited,” she said. “I was sleeping on the floor so the kids could have beds in the bedroom. So we got the voucher. You have 60 days to find a home, and so I started the hunt.”
But like so many other voucher holders, she was soon in a panic as one landlord after another said they didn’t accept housing choice vouchers under the government’s Section 8 program, which pays 70% of the rent for low-income people who qualify.
“Just everywhere they’d slam the door in my face,” she said. “I had no criminal history. No evictions. No pets. I’m a nonsmoker. It was me and the kids. We just needed a place to live. And yet I was treated like trash.
“And I started asking them why don’t you accept this? And they said because Section 8 people are known to be problems and tear our property up and engage in criminal activity, so we just don’t accept Section 8 people.”
Still others said they wanted to avoid the government red tape, which includes inspections and paperwork. With time running out, she finally found a landlord willing to accept the federal rent subsidy. But low-income families in need of clean, safe rental housing shouldn’t have to endure what she went through, West said.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas doesn’t think so, either.
He and five other members of the Kansas City Council recently introduced a proposed ordinance that would forbid landlords from turning away prospective renters based solely on their source of income or intention to use housing vouchers.
If the ordinance passes, Kansas City would join a growing number of cities and states that have passed similar laws to give people without a lot of money better access to housing in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates, which typically have better schools and less crime.
“There are so many people in this city who are forced to live somewhere that is not healthy or not safe for them because of the discrimination,” said Brandon Henderson, an organizer with the citywide tenants union KC Tenants. “I’ve met folks who had to make decisions about moving back in with their abuser because they couldn’t find a place that would take them with a voucher.”
As such, many vouchers go unused. The federal Office of Public & Indian Housing reports that in September, nearly 86% of the 8,400 vouchers issued by the Housing Authority of Kansas City were being accepted by landlords.
That meant that 1,300 vouchers that could have gone to pay someone’s monthly rent weren’t being used. One possible reason: Landlords explicitly refused to accept vouchers on one out of five units where vouchers might be used, according to a one-day snapshot audit of Zillow listings that KC Tenants performed last month.
The group worked with city staff in drafting the proposed ordinance, which would prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to people because of their reliance on rental assistance subsidies or get their income from something other than a regular 9-to-5 job, such as gig workers and workers who rely on tips.
It would also prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to people based solely on an applicant’s credit score, past evictions, alleged damage to prior rental properties or their criminal record.
Supporters say the ordnance is aimed at addressing what they see as an issue of social justice and civil rights because many of those who would benefit are disproportionately people of color, women and people with disabilities.
“The ordinance banning source of income discrimination is very basic common sense, saying that if you lawfully obtain income, it doesn’t matter how you should pay your rent,” Lucas said on the day the proposed ordinance was introduced. “It says very simply that you cannot be discriminated against when you are renting in Kansas City.” Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas spoke during a rally with KC Tenants for their Tenants Bill of Rights outside City Hall Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019.
Opposition from landlords
Landlords were not part of the ordinance drafting process, and many are pushing back. They say they should have a right to refuse to participate in the voluntary federal Section 8 program. And they say the government has no business telling them they have to rent to people who don’t have a regular source of income that the landlords are convinced will be sufficient to regularly pay the rent.
“This is a business, and I should be able to screen my customers to make sure they’re credit worthy,” said Stacey Johnson-Cosby, president of a coalition of landlord groups called the Kansas City Regional Housing Alliance. “This takes away my opportunity to do that.”
The Tuesday afternoon meeting of the council’s special committee for legal review will be the public’s first chance to testify for and against the measure, which if approved by the committee would then go onto the full council for possible final adoption.
Cosby plans to be there along with many other landlords who object to being told they must accept Section 8 vouchers.
“Many people won’t deal with the government because they don’t want to have to deal with all the red tape and the big bureaucratic nightmare that comes with dealing with the government,” she said.
Council members have been inundated with emails from owners of rental properties stating similar arguments. One councilwoman said she had received at least 75 messages as of last Thursday morning.
The 1,100–member Apartment Association of Kansas City is among the groups urging landlords to contact council members and express their opposition.
“Please vote NO or say NO to the current version of Ordinance 231019 and allow for more dialogue and time to hear from all sides and do what’s in the best interest of all of your constituents and Kansas City,” the group’s suggested form letter to council members read.
The executive director of the apartment association did not respond to requests for comment.
Not to be outdone, ordinance supporters say they are also mounting a letter-writing campaign that will fill council members’ inboxes with hundreds of emails.
Seventeen states, 21 counties and 85 cities had laws on the books as of September 2022 that made it illegal for landlords to refuse to accept housing choice vouchers or discriminate based on renters’ source of income, according to the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.
The council, a civil rights advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., estimated that 57% of households using vouchers live in jurisdictions covered by those laws.
Massachusetts passed the first one in 1971, but most have taken effect in the past decade. The number keeps growing, albeit with the occasional reversal. Iowa’s legislature in 2021 made it illegal for local governments to pass source-of-income laws after Des Moines, Iowa City and Marion, a suburb of Cedar Rapids, passed their ordinances.
Those cities had until this year to quit enforcing them.
In Kansas, Lawrence passed a source of income law that took effect in June. Since then, the number of landlords accepting vouchers has grown, according to Gallal Obeid, vice president of program operations at the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority. “In June 2023, 255 landlords received housing assistant payments, rising to 310 landlords as of December 2023,” Obeid said in an email. But then, Lawrence already had a high rate of acceptance, with 94% of vouchers issued being accepted six months ago and 97% today.
Landlords of Lawrence LLC had argued against passage of the ordinance, saying it was aimed at fixing a problem that did not exist.
The group later challenged the ordinance in court, claiming that its anti-discrimination clause on source of income was so broad that landlords would have to accept almost any kind of income as payment, including income from the sale of illegal drugs.
More recently, the group asked for permission to amend the lawsuit based on a recent New York Supreme Court ruling, which found that forcing landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers was a violation of the Fourth Amendment guarantee in the U.S. Constitution that protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.
Landlords accepting Section 8 vouchers must allow government inspections of their properties.
The case is set for trial in May. Stacey West, 43, is a single mom who had a difficult time finding a home using her Section 8 voucher because of landlords not renting to tenants who pay with vouchers. After about seven months of searching, West found and was accepted into a single family home on Kansas City’s east side.
Enforcement Record Mixed
On average it takes five years for source of income anti-discrimination laws to have a real substantive impact, the authors of an October 2022 Urban Institute report found. Why it takes that long, they weren’t sure.
“Enforcement agencies would tell you that it takes time for them to prosecute people, bring a case, a lawsuit or something to spur compliance with law, and then you’d see more adherence to it,” co-author Daniel Teles told stateline.org.
But Teles, a senior research associate at the institute Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, said that that might not be the only reason.
“Is it that it takes time for landlords to know that this law exists?” he asked. “Or do [landlords] know it exists, but it takes a lot for some enforcement to happen and scare people into following those laws?”
St. Louis made it illegal in 2015 to discriminate against potential renters on the basis of how they plan to pay the rent. But it wasn’t enforced aggressively, and four years later a nonprofit group that advocated for equal access to housing conducted an investigation and found that many landlords were violating the law.
The Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing & Opportunity Council found more than 100 advertisements for rental properties on sites such as Zillow and Craigslist that said vouchers would not be accepted.
“For a long time after the ordinance started, it was just totally ignored,” said Glenn Burleigh, who until recently was that nonprofit agency’s community engagement specialist. “I think they (landlords) have gotten better about that.”
It’s rarer now to find “No Section 8” in ads for rentals, he said, but federal statistics haven’t shown much improvement in how many available vouchers are being used.
As of September, 81% of vouchers issued by the St. Louis Housing Authority were in use, below the national average of about 85%, according to the federal Office of Public & Indian Housing, which tracks the housing choice program.
Burleigh attributes that to flaws in the St. Louis source of income ordinance, which he says is not supported with adequate funding for enforcement and loopholes that allow landlords to turn down applicants with housing vouchers.
For instance, landlords typically want assurances that tenants’ monthly income is triple the monthly rent. But some of them don’t count the rental assistance money, which is typically 70% of the rent, as part of that equation.
“The whole point of vouchers is you only pay a third of your income,” he said. “So by putting in this 300% rule, they have not said that we’re not renting to you because you are attempting to use a voucher. But it does essentially bar folks with vouchers from getting these apartments.”
Kansas City’s proposal
The proposed Kansas City ordinance addresses both flaws. It includes a detailed enforcement mechanism, which would be subject to the city council funding it. And it requires landlords to factor the voucher amount into their income ratio in determining whether the prospective tenant will likely be able to pay their share of the rent.
“When we were in the early stages of drafting this policy, St. Louis was one place that we were particularly interest in studying,” Henderson of KC Tenants said. “Because one, they are in Missouri, and two, it is not enforced as strongly as we would want it to be on our side (of the state).”
If the ordinance becomes law, the city’s civil rights and equal opportunity department would do more than investigate complaints and recommend fines for violations, ranging from $500 to $1,000.
The ordinance also calls for the department to conduct random audits four times a months of rental ads looking for discriminatory language against any protected group of people. The department would also send out testers four times a year to pose as prospective tenants to see if landlords are following the law.
Revenue from the fines would help pay for those efforts.
Second time around
At the urging of landlords, the City Council stripped a similar provision from the Tenants Bill of Rights that KC Tenants was successful in getting approved four years ago.
Johnson-Cosby of the regional landlord group was busy last week with Zoom and emails rallying her troops once again. She said she understands the difficulties that renters face in finding affordable housing.
But landlords aren’t compensated for the time their units sit unused while they await approval from local housing authorities.
“If I am forced to accept a Section 8 eight voucher and to go through all of their processes — in the city of Kansas City through the housing authority — that could take up to two months before I get them settled in and get my first month’s worth of rent,” she said.
It would be better to use a carrot, rather than the stick approach to increase landlord participation in the voucher program, she said.
For instance, Johnson County recently used $200,000 in federal grant money to convince landlords to accept vouchers. The Landlord Incentive Program included a sign-up bonus equal to two months’ rent and access to a pot of money set aside to cover any damages to their properties.
“These numbers are not finalized but the incentive program helped to house around 82 low income families,” said Jessa Molina, landlord liaison with the Johnson County department of housing and community development. More than 20 landlords were added to the program, she said.
Kansas City Councilman Nathan Willett introduced an ordinance last week that would follow Johnson County’s example and direct City Manager Brian Platt to research and come up with ways to encourage landlords “to participate in housing incentive programs with the goal of offering financial assistance and/or technical assistance to landlords who will rent to families with a federally funded voucher.”
But Henderson said there simply aren’t enough dollars available to replicate what Johnson County did with something similar in Kansas City, where the need is much greater. Besides, there’s no assurance even Johnson County will have the cash to do it again. “What we’re asking for is not unreasonable,” Henderson said. “We don’t want the program to get considered voluntary because the folks who are desperately in need of housing in Kansas City and are using these vouchers deserve to have some place to call home, and their money is just as good as anyone else’s money.”