Providence mulls ban on landlords refusing Section 8 vouchers

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Mayor Elorza at housing presser_1553108563128.png.jpg

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence landlords would be banned from refusing to rent apartments to people with housing vouchers – like Section 8 – under an ordinance that will be introduced to the City Council Thursday night.

The proposal, which already has the support of the majority of the council and Mayor Jorge Elorza, would prohibit landlords from refusing to rent property to people with any “lawful source of income,” which includes all public assistance programs.

The ordinance is modeled after statewide legislation that was approved by the Senate last year but died in the House. It has been reintroduced in both chambers this year.

“Our goal is to end discrimination based on income from public assistance and housing vouchers, statewide, by starting right here in our capital city,” Councilwoman Rachel Miller (Ward 13), the lead sponsor of the ordinance, said. “Because, as we often hear, as Providence goes, so does the state.”

The ordinance was introduced at a morning press conference at the United Way office on Valley Street. Miler and Elorza were joined by Sen. Harold Metts and Rep. Anastasia Williams, the Democratic city lawmakers sponsoring the statewide bills.

Under the Providence proposal, Miller said owner-occupied properties with three units or less would be exempt from the requirement to accept housing vouchers for rent. The ordinance would be enforced by the Providence Human Relations Commission, a 13-member panel appointed by the mayor with approval from the council.

The commission has the ability to investigate discrimination complaints, but it’s not clear under the city charter whether it can impose penalties. The commission’s 2018 annual report shows it received 21 housing-related discrimination complaints last year, more than half of which came from people with a disability.

“No one should be unjustly denied the opportunity to secure a home,” Elorza said. “This ordinance is a bold step towards making sure that our most vulnerable are protected. By pushing for greater access to safe, affordable housing, we are making Providence a stronger, more inclusive city.”

At least 11 states and Washington, D.C., have laws on the books that prohibit income discrimination by landlords, and dozens of municipalities across the country have similar ordinances on the books, according to the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, a civil rights law and policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

A report released earlier this year by Pawtucket-based SouthCoast Fair Housing suggested renters who use housing vouchers are shut out of 93% of units in Rhode Island. A cursory review of rental postings on Craigslist shows dozens of landlords who do not accept Section 8 vouchers, although the bulk of the listings are not in Providence.

Keith Fernandes, a rental property owner who advocates on behalf of landlords at the city and state level, said he’s hopeful the council will address “low-income housing in a fair manner.” He said landlords would not have a problem with accepting Section 8 “as long as the city and state also give them the tools to quickly deal with unruly tenants who cause disturbances to other tenants and homeowners in the neighborhood.”

“This isn’t about discrimination,” Fernandes said. “After all, landlords house a wide variety of low-income tenants without a problem. Politicians see a problem, and pass legislation that makes the issue someone else’s headache. Most small landlords are not in a position to deal with the issues of Section 8 tenants without protections and this is yet another example why people don’t want to invest in lower-income housing in Providence or anywhere else in this state.”

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Dan McGowan (dmcgowan@wpri.com) covers politics and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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