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Phoenix City Council Bans Housing Assistance Discrimination

By March 3, 2023No Comments

By Taylor Seely | Arizona Republic

In a display of bipartisanship and consensus, the Phoenix City Council on Wednesday voted to prohibit discrimination against renters and home buyers who use government assistance, but it is unclear when the ban will go into effect, and the threat of a potential lawsuit lingers.

Eight of the city’s nine council members approved a ban that will penalize those who discriminate against renters and home buyers based on their sources of income. Violating the rule could result in a civil fine of $2,500 and daily penalties of up to $2,500, according to city documents.

The ordinance is a win for people who have recently lobbied the council for help securing sustainable, affordable housing. It was opposed by the Phoenix Realtors organization and the Arizona Multihousing Association, which represents the apartment industry.

Michelle Ashton, who said she works with seniors seeking housing, told council members during the March 1 meeting that her clients were running out of options and becoming homeless because their housing assistance vouchers were expiring before they could find a landlord willing to accept them.

“I don’t know if you guys can try to place yourselves in their shoes. … It’s scary,” Ashton said. “It’s not asking much, and it shouldn’t be an issue for any of these landlords for this to pass if they’re operating well within moral values.”

In August, an Arizona Republic analysis of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data about metro Phoenix showed the number of issued but unused housing assistance vouchers increased significantly in recent years. In Phoenix alone, the number of vouchers that expired, likely because tenants couldn’t use them, went from 147 in 2019 to 183 in 2022 — a 24% increase.

Vonda Wilkins advocated on behalf of her mother at the council meeting. She said her mom “put in her time” working as a police officer and correctional officer, but now, as a senior, she cannot afford to live alone.

“It becomes a pride issue. I’m privileged, and it’s an honor for me to be able to help my mother but not at the risk of her pride being tugged,” Wilkins said. Moments before Wilkins spoke, she physically supported her mother at the lectern as her mother asked the council to pass the ordinance.

“We’re just regular people. Law-abiding citizens who want to be able to be independent, want to be able to take care of ourselves and be able to do it pridefully. … We voted for our elected officials to lead … not to wait for leadership of others,” Wilkins said.

After comments from the public, Councilmember Laura Pastor said, “At the end of the day, this is the people’s ordinance, and not the realtors’ ordinance. It is basic, fundamental rights that this council represents.”

The audience in the council chambers applauded.

Opposition from real estate, apartment groups

Phoenix Realtors and the Arizona Multihousing Association opposed the nondiscrimination measure for different reasons.

The real estate agents association wanted the ban to apply only to renters. The group suggested prohibiting source of income discrimination in homebuying would unnecessarily confuse the process because it may raise a conflict with rules related to federally insured mortgage programs. Phoenix’s ordinance might be used to punish a lender for refusing a prospective homebuyer even though it was out of the lender’s control, said Alyson Perkins, Phoenix Realtors’ government affairs director.

City Attorney Julie Kriegh told council members federal law would supersede a city ordinance, meaning lenders would not be found in violation of the ordinance for complying with federal rules.

Courtney LeVinus, CEO of the Arizona Multihousing Association, said the ordinance would subject landlords to the “antiquated, broken and bureaucratic” housing voucher program. She emphasized the problem was not the source of income but rather the “strings attached” to the “dysfunctional” program.

In a 2019 blog post about housing voucher regulations, the National Apartment Association said “limits on rent increases,” which are subject to local housing authority review and “often do not keep pace with local market rates,” as well as delays related to inspections — to ensure housing quality — disincentivize apartment owners from accepting vouchers.

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