County panel votes to sup­port change to fair hous­ing law

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Milwaukee Wisconsin - Don Behm

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.

Ed­u­cat­ing land­lords

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.

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