Senate panel weighs bills prohibiting landlords from income-based discrimination
Susan J. Demas
Equal housing advocates, former unhoused Michiganders, and landlords sat before the Michigan Senate Housing and Human Services Committee on Tuesday to testify on a bill package aimed at ensuring equal access to housing by disallowing landlords to deny renters based on their source of income.
The package, which is comprised of Senate Bills 205, 206 and 207, would extend the protections of the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act to prevent discrimination based on source of income and would prohibit landlords from denying prospective renters because of their use of housing vouchers or other subsidies to pay rent.
State Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), who is the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 206, said that the issue of rent discrimination is surprisingly pervasive in Michigan. The lawmaker said she decided to take action after two rental complexes in her district changed ownership and in turn decided to stop renting to people with housing subsidies, displacing several residents.
“We had two buildings, and they got bought a year and a half ago,” Bayer said. “And the people got between one and six months notice that they were not going to have their lease renewed or that they were going to increase the rent outside of what they could pay for with a voucher.”
The lead sponsors of Senate Bills 205 and 207 are Sens. Mary Cavanagh (D-Redford Twp.) and Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), respectively.
Section 8 housing vouchers provided by the federal government are a commonly-used subsidy for low-income people, allowing a portion of rent to be paid by the tenant based on income and the difference paid for by the voucher. According to the Center on Policy and Budget Priorities, there are about 266,000 Michiganders who currently rely on federal programs for reliable housing, including the voucher program.
Housing subsidy recipients are largely made up of seniors, people with disabilities and veterans. The bill package, which has yet to be voted on by the committee, would seek to alleviate strain on members of those communities so that people could focus on other aspects of life instead of wondering whether or not they’d have secure housing.
Opposition to the bills is largely centered around landlords’ hesitation about being mandated to accept vouchers or other subsidies. Several pieces of testimony from the hearing expressed concerns about long waiting periods to approve a tenant or an excess of paperwork and inspections in order to rent to someone with a housing subsidy.
Tracey Hoesch, who works both as a private landlord and advocate for the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, testified in support of the bills. She said that she and her husband had positive experiences with their subsidized tenants, including during the sometimes-lengthy process of completing the required state and federal paperwork in order to rent to them.
“The amount of paperwork that I complete for our tenants with vouchers seems to pale in comparison to the amount of time and energy that they have to invest into finding and securing a place that is not only quality and affordable, but will accept their voucher,” Hoesch said. “So to me, the equation is unbalanced.”
Others who testified from their own experience as voucher holders or applicants said that being homeless while attempting to obtain housing assistance was an arduous process that put strain on them and their families. Shearese Stapleton, a citizen who testified in support of the bills, said that she was homeless for over a year before her voucher application was approved.
After seven years in stable housing, her property came under new ownership that would charge an extra $300, prohibiting her from using her voucher.
“We stayed in a hotel for almost a month,” Stapleton said. “I exhausted all of my savings. We lost furniture. We lost personal items.”
Stapleton said that stress would have been alleviated by being able to use her voucher and not having to move.
“When people are able to use their voucher, it takes them out of a state of just not knowing what was coming,” Stapleton said.
Several organizations representing landlords or real estate companies were present during the committee meeting, and said they were opposed to the bill as it was written, even though they supported the goal of promoting stable housing for all Michiganders.
Erika Farley, who testified on behalf of the Rental Property Owners Association of Michigan, said that her organization and others were working with the committee to potentially amend the bills to make them more landlord-friendly.
“Our goal is to make sure that the program is working for the property providers and for the residents,” Farley said.
Some of the modifications requested by landlords included adding language to the bills to ensure that the source of income is verifiable and would have longevity in order to protect property owners from having to deal with missed payments.
Bayer said that the committee will continue working with property associations to streamline or improve the process of accepting subsidized renters, but that the issue of preventing homelessness would remain the top priority.
“Underneath it all, we’re talking about homelessness,” Bayer said.
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