County panel votes to support change to fair housing law
Milwaukee County would prohibit landlords from discriminating against potential tenants solely on the basis of their use of government-funded rental or other housing assistance vouchers as part of a fair housing law revision recommended Tuesday by a County Board panel.
Representatives of the largest association of landlords in the metropolitan area said Tuesday they would not oppose the proposal and pledged to work with county housing officials to improve the voucher program.
Fair housing advocates speaking at a public hearing Tuesday at the courthouse urged approval of the measure as one step toward providing stability for low-income residents of the county as well as an opportunity for those residents to move out of segregated neighborhoods with poor quality housing.
“This will help folks in their pursuit of safe and affordable housing,” Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic said. The status quo has trapped a majority of voucher holders in a few ZIP codes within the City of Milwaukee, said Dimitrijevic and other fair housing advocates.
Residents receiving vouchers for rental payments would be added as a protected class in the county’s fair housing ordinance, under the resolution sponsored by Dimitrijevic.
The County Board’s economic and community development committee on Tuesday recommended board approval of the resolution on a 3-1 vote. Supervisor Patti Logsdon opposed the measure.
Logsdon said landlords who contacted her expressed fear of losing their rights as property owners. “They feel the government is taking control of their life,” she said.
The board is scheduled to act on the resolution June 21.
While the Apartment Association of South Eastern Wisconsin does not agree there is a need to create this protected class, association President Ron Hegwood pledged to educate landlords on the primary voucher program, known as Section 8, and dispel misconceptions.
“Section 8 renters becoming a protected class does not mean that a landlord must accept any tenant with a housing voucher,” Hegwood said.
Landlords with a consistent screening process can select tenants based on multiple considerations, including credit checks and criminal background checks, according to Hegwood and Jim Mathey, county Housing Division administrator.
Dimitrijevic agreed to amend the resolution to include Hegwood’s recommendation for a new revolving fund to assist tenants receiving rental or other housing assistance with the first month’s payments.
Landlords have complained about the long delays required to process the vouchers and a revolving fund would provide tenants with a “bridge loan” during the transition to a new residence, Hegwood said. When a landlord receives payment for the first few months, the fund could be reimbursed, he said.
The fund would be jump-started with access to cash in a separate county housing stabilization fund aimed at reducing evictions. Hegwood said the landlords association would work with the county to seek private contributions and create an endowment for the new revolving fund for voucher holders.
Residents with rental or housing assistance are not included as a protected class in the county’s fair housing ordinance now, Dimitrijevic said in support of the need for the change. And federal law does not require landlords to accept housing choice vouchers provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Breaking up segregation
The housing voucher program “is a key element in breaking up segregation and poverty,” said Peter Koneazny, litigation director for the Legal aid Society of Milwaukee.
“Research on the persistence of racial segregation patterns has shown that a family moving from low opportunity to higher opportunity enhances the health, academic and future economic benefits of those making such moves,” Koneazny said.
Those benefits are not available to those families “if property owners can shun vouchers categorically or can refuse to rent to program participants as a pretext for avoiding low-income families and people of color generally,” he said.
Dimitrijevic said her proposal is intended to encompass all forms of public rental housing assistance. Among them: housing choice vouchers through HUD’s Section 8 program; HUD’s federal HOME Investment Partnerships Program; federal Community Development Block Grants distributed to municipalities; and any other public rental assistance programs.
HOME program grants are distributed to municipalities and nonprofit groups to rehabilitate housing for rent or homeownership, as well as provide rental assistance to low-income residents for those rehabilitated residences.