Providence councilors vote to protect housing voucher recipients

Providence
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Providence City Council on Thursday passed an ordinance prohibiting landlords from discriminating against renters based on their lawful source of income.

The legislation, which still requires a second passage, would bar landlords in Providence from turning away a prospective tenant solely because they are paying with a Section 8 housing choice voucher or any other legal income, such as SSI disability benefits or veterans benefits.

“Right now, it is perfectly legal for a landlord to deny a tenant an apartment solely based on your income,” said Councilor Rachel Miller, the lead sponsor of the ordinance, introduced in 2019.

Entered into evidence on the council docket were a number of Craigslist advertisements for apartments in Providence where the landlord explicitly wrote they don’t accept housing vouchers.

Supporters of the ordinance argue that the current system leads to discrimination against those who most often pay rent using the federal housing vouchers, such as low-income and disabled renters and people of color.

The legislation has support from multiple fair housing groups, the R.I. Coalition for the Homeless and the American Civil Liberties Union among others.

Federal law already bars landlords from discriminating against renters for a variety of other protected characteristics such as race, color, religion and disability, but not source of income.

If the ordinance wins final passage, landlords would not automatically have to approve all applications from tenants with Section 8 vouchers; they would still be able to use discretion to deny prospective tenants for other reasons such as credit or background checks.

“It serves families, it stabilizes our housing market, and it’s also the right thing to do,” Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune said. “Housing is a right. It’s a human right. Everyone should have access to housing.”

Mayor Jorge Elorza also supports the ordinance.

Opposition has mainly come from landlord associations that argue the Section 8 program includes burdensome inspection requirements and red tape, and could lead to increased rent in certain buildings because the program sometimes pays more than a landlord’s advertised rent.

“Should this legislation pass, the city will actually raise the rents for most tenants because source of income is look-good, feel-good legislation,” the Providence Apartment Association wrote in a letter to the City Council.

Miller argued the ordinance was unlikely to raise rents, pointing out that the average rent — including utilities — for a one-bedroom apartment in Providence with a housing voucher is $922.

As it stands now, use of the vouchers is uneven across the city, according to the Providence Housing Authority, which administers the federal Section 8 program locally.

Housing vouchers are used most frequently to rent apartments in Upper South Providence, Elmwood and the West End, according to documents provided to the council by the PHA, while there are no Section 8 units in the East Side neighborhoods of Wayland, Fox Point and Blackstone.

The council hotly debated an initial motion to send the legislation back to committee for further vetting, raising objections from multiple councilors who pointed out that the ordinance languished in committee for almost two years.

“This has been held up in committee,” Councilor Helen Anthony said. “This has been fully vetted. … It’s frustrating.”

“By delaying this, you’re preventing that single mother in the Wanskuck neighborhood who wants to live in another part of the city because they need access to a public transit line to get to work … from getting to her job,” Councilman David Salvatore said. “We can’t do nothing.”

Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris, who proposed to send the ordinance back to committee, said she supports the legislation but wants to see it further vetted.

“I was a voucher holder. I raised my kids on vouchers. I don’t think any of you have had a Section 8 voucher,” Harris said. “I’m uncomfortable — I have some questions.”

The motion to send it back to committee was rejected 10 to 5.

The subsequent vote on first passage of the ordinance was 12 in favor, with three abstentions.

“Tonight, we are one vote closer to making housing discrimination a thing of the past,” Council President Sabina Matos said in a statement after the vote. “Finding affordable housing is already a challenge in the city, and adding to that the sometimes blatant discrimination from landlords when they learn a potential renter has a voucher or subsidy is a frightening reality.”

The debate about banning rental discrimination based on source of income has been gaining steam lately. A similar ordinance banning housing discrimination based on income passed the Cranston City Council last year, but was vetoed by then-Mayor Allan Fung shortly before he left office.

Statewide legislation to ban rental discrimination based on source of income also may have an increased chance of passage after languishing for years, due to a change in leadership in the House.

While the legislation has passed the Rhode Island Senate each for the past four years, it always failed to get a vote in the House under former Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who lost re-election last year.

His replacement, Speaker Joe Shekarchi, has been a sponsor of the bill in the past.

“The bill prohibiting discrimination in housing against those persons who have a lawful source of income will go through the normal legislative process,” Shekarchi said Thursday. “However, I have sponsored and supported this bill in the past, and should the House Municipal Government and Housing Committee pass it, I intend to vote for it on the floor.”

Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate already this session by Rep. Anastasia Williams of Providence and Sen. Meghan Kallman of Pawtucket, both Democrats.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook

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