Commentary

No, that’s not what Louisville’s housing discrimination law does

Kentucky lawmakers spread false claims to preempt local governments from protecting would-be tenants

January 25, 2024 5:45 am

Because veterans, people with disabilities and families have housing benefits that are difficult or impossible to use when landlords say “your money’s no good here,” Louisville joined many states and local jurisdictions in banning discrimination based solely on the source of someone’s income. (Getty Images)

As one of the sponsors of a 2020 Louisville ordinance banning source of income housing discrimination, I’ve watched in disbelief as members of the Kentucky General Assembly have repeatedly misstated what the law does.

In efforts to void that law and keep Lexington from passing a similar ordinance, they have stated that it prevents landlords from appropriately screening tenants, requires them to rent at unprofitable rates and forces them to rent to anyone with a federal housing voucher. Every one of those claims is completely false, as is the claim that source of income discrimination bans are some new, crazy idea. 

Because Louisville veterans, people with disabilities and families have housing benefits that are difficult or impossible to use when landlords say “your money’s no good here,” Louisville joined many states and local jurisdictions in banning discrimination based solely on the source of someone’s income. Similar bans across the country have long helped to get people into housing and combat the racial and economic segregation which occurs when housing benefits can only be used in some parts of a city. 

The ordinance wasn’t a new idea. State and local laws prohibiting housing discrimination against individuals based on income sources such as Social Security, disability benefits and housing vouchers that veterans and families use to pay part of their rent began to appear in the 1970s.

Legislation was prompted by the case of Jill Williams, an honorably discharged homeless veteran who estimated she was turned down 20 times by landlords who didn’t accept federal benefits, before renting an apartment in a less desirable neighborhood because she was about to lose her time-limited voucher. In her own words, “I was good enough to serve my country, but not good enough to live in your neighborhood.”  In 2017, the American Bar Association encouraged every government to pass such bans.

Laws banning the sort of discrimination Ms. Williams faced were not traditionally viewed as partisan issues. Conservative states such as North Dakota enacted a law in 1983 and Utah passed a ban in 1993. Conservative Republican U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah was a champion of the laws, noting in 2018 that they “put an end to the immoral housing discrimination against veterans and others who rely on veterans’ benefits, Social Security Disability, or other non-wage legal income … thereby helping to remove an unnecessary barrier facing Utah families and veterans on the path to self-reliance.” 

Cincinnati has had such a law since 1980 and is now joined by 18 other Ohio communities. Across the country, some 20 states and 100 cities and counties ban source of income discrimination, with the laws now estimated to cover more than 57% of federal Housing Choice (Section 8) (HCV) voucher holders.  

Louisville joined those ranks in 2020, after Metro Council voted 24-0, in bipartisan fashion. The ordinance was approved after discussions with the Louisville Apartment Association, which has also been involved in efforts to educate its members on what the law does — and doesn’t — do.  The association and fair housing lawyers jointly issued a document, outlined below, concerning vouchers. It directly — and correctly — refutes many of the statements recently made in Frankfort:

“A landlord or property manager may not refuse to rent to a tenant just because the tenant is an HCV holder. To avoid unlawful discrimination against HCV holders, landlords and property managers should not: 

  • Advertise that they are not renting to HCV or Section 8 tenants. It is illegal to discriminate against a potential lessee based on his or her source of income. 
  • Refuse to process a prospective renter’s application because he or she has a voucher. 
  • Treat voucher holders less favorably than other potential tenants by inflating rents or screening such applicants more stringently.

The ordinance does not require landlords or property managers to rent to a tenant just because he or she is an HCV holder. Landlords and property managers should: 

  • Screen voucher holders as they would any other prospective tenant, using the same, neutral criteria….”  

Of course, neutral criteria can include ability to pay security deposits and the same rent landlords regularly charge to all tenants.  No landlord is required to change those criteria or their properties because of Louisville’s source of income ordinance, and repeated assertions to the contrary in Frankfort are simply false.  

Housing is a human right, and every community should do all it can to get people into housing. Louisville took a step in that direction in 2020 when it joined many states and cities across the country banning discrimination based solely on the source of someone’s income.

Preempting an enacted ordinance passed in unanimous, bipartisan fashion to address a critical local need is an extraordinary and unnecessary act. The ordinance is working in Louisville, and Frankfort should let it continue to work.

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