If all the landlords in Thurston County disappeared, a third of our population would be homeless. That’s the percentage of households that are renters in the county; local cities have even higher percentages. In Olympia, it’s 51 percent.
So it makes sense to give a shout-out of appreciation to all the landlords who keep a roof over the heads of so many.
Unfortunately not everyone who needs one has a landlord. that is because many landlords won’t rent to low-income people who receive a federal housing voucher to help pay their rent.
Some landlords are reluctant to rent to people with housing assistance because doing so requires them to fill out a five-page federal form and have their rental units inspected periodically for basic health and safety.
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Others are simply fearful of having their rental properties trashed, though advocates say there is no data to indicate that people who receive housing assistance are more likely to cause damage than those who don’t.
But the harm caused by landlords’ refusal to accept people with housing assistance can be devastating.
A single mom, for instance, struggled to pay the rent for two years, finally got a housing voucher, and was told by her landlord she would have to move because he wouldn’t take it. Moving meant she had to uproot her kids from their schools, according to the Housing Authority of Thurston County.
A disabled veteran testified to the Legislature recently that when he finally got housing assistance was told by his landlord he’d have to move to a less desirable building.
Worse yet, a person can become or remain homeless while searching for a landlord who will accept vouchers. And if one isn’t found in time, the voucher expires, extinguishing hope of getting off the street or out of a shelter.
That’s why a growing list of local governments have adopted anti-discrimination measures that forbid landlord discrimination against people who receive federal housing assistance. They include Seattle, Redmond, Kirkland, King County, and Vancouver. Tumwater also has such an ordinance, passed in 1993, and the city of Olympia is moving to adopt an ordinance, too.
There have also been bills kicking around the Legislature to create a statewide ban for a decade or more, and it looks as if this might be the year when one (Senate Bill 5378) actually has a real chance for passage – if its Senate sponsor, Mark Miloscia (R-Federal Way), can persuade landlord groups to agree to it. A companion measure, HB 1565 from Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-Spokane), is also in play.
As the middle class shrinks and the crisis of homelessness grows, forbidding discrimination based on a prospective renter’s use of federal housing assistance is a compelling public interest.
There are encouraging signs that landlords’ concerns might be addressed by exempting those who own fewer than four rental units, and by including in the budget – as the governor has proposed – funding to help housing units pass inspections and to repair any rental unit that is damaged.
There is no denying that accepting housing vouchers imposes some new burdens on landlords. But we hope legislators and landlords alike will recognize that the inconvenience of filling out forms and agreeing to inspections pales in comparison to the hardship and suffering that result from turning away people with disabilities, low-wage workers, parents, and veterans simply because the federal government has offered them some much-needed help.