Washington state is the latest jurisdiction to pass a law to protect low-income renters from housing discrimination.

House Bill 2578, which will go into effect at the end of September, makes it illegal for landlords to reject applicants based on their use of public assistance, including Section 8, Social Security or veterans benefits.

"We have a housing crisis in Washington. In Seattle, the market is so tight that I would hear about tenants getting [evicted] just because they were using public assistance. There were some property owners that weren’t even accepting veterans," says Democratic state Rep. Marcus Riccelli, who introduced the legislation. 

If a landlord or property company is found in violation of the law, they could be fined "up to four and one-half times the monthly rent of the real property at issue, as well as court costs and reasonable attorneys' fees," according to the bill.

When looking at apartment ads, Riccelli says it isn’t uncommon to see "Section 8 need not apply."

"That was already illegal [in three counties] before this law was passed, but now we’re making it extremely clear what you can and cannot do," he says.

Currently 15 states, now including Washington, ban housing discrimination based on a person's source of income; four others use tax and other incentives to persuade landlords to accept public assistance tenants, according to the Poverty and Race Research Action Council (PRRAC). However, California and Wisconsin’s bans don’t extend to Section 8 and other housing vouchers, and Minnesota’s was recently weakened by the courts. At the local level, 71 counties and cities across 16 states have a similar ban. San Diego approved a housing discrimination ordinance this month, and Denver is currently considering one.

"Cities and counties and towns are asking what can we do to improve our profile in terms of segregation and access to opportunity," says Philip Tegeler, president and executive director of PRRAC. "There was a lot of movement under the Obama administration to open up opportunity for voucher families, and that has trickled down to state and local government."

Of the millions of people who qualify for housing vouchers, only about one in eight families receive one, according to the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness. But getting a voucher is no guarantee of finding a place that will accept it. Source-of-income discrimination bans make it a little easier: A family is 12 percent more likely to find housing in areas with such laws in place.

When someone uses a housing voucher, the federal government pays the balance of their rent that exceeds 30 percent of their monthly income. Qualifying for housing assistance is different based on where you live because it’s administered through local housing authorities. In Seattle, a single person making $33,600 a year is eligible, though preference is given to people making $20,200 or less. In Miami, a person can't make above $27,550 a year to qualify, and priority is given to those who make $16,550 or less.

Landlords say accepting people who use some form of public assistance to help pay their rent just isn't good business. It means there can be delays in payments, and security deposits are not always covered.

"There are a number of administrative and contractual requirements that are not part of a standard leasing process," says Greg Brown, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Apartment Association, which represents landlords. "It’s not about the individual who’s carrying the voucher. It’s all about what comes with the voucher. Some of that is a local public housing authority, and some of that is about the federal government."

As this policy becomes more popular, it's prompting preemption battles between some state and local governments. In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law in 2015 that bans cities from passing source-of-income discrimination bans, blocking ordinances in Austin and Dallas. Fair housing advocates sued the state in 2017, and the case is pending.

The bill in Washington, meanwhile, is meant to be a compromise between the landlords' association and affordable housing advocates, says Rep. Riccelli. For instance, the bill sets up a "mitigation fund" to help landlords with extra costs that might be associated with tenants using public assistance. 

"Some of the landlords said these tenants would often cause excessive damage to the apartments. While I might not necessarily agree with that," says Riccelli, "we wanted to create this mitigation fund for them."

J.B. Wogan contributed reporting to this story.

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