End Source of Income Discrimination

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Right now, it’s legal in Bellingham for landlords to discriminate against potential renters based solely on their source of income. Known broadly as “Source of Income Discrimination” (SOID), this practice has been banned in 10 other Washington jurisdictions and 14 states. The closing of this loophole is now being considered by Bellingham City Council.

The current rental market is impacting efforts to address homelessness. According to the Washington Department of Commerce, when rents go up by $100 a month in a community, homelessness goes up between 6 percent and 32 percent. Because Bellingham has adopted the “Housing-First” strategy, the impacts of SOID are felt most acutely among people who need to use a housing voucher to make ends meet. When landlords won’t rent to an individual or family with a voucher, their chances of becoming or remaining homeless go up considerably.

To be clear, a local ordinance that addresses this type of discrimination should not take away the ability of the landlord to screen on the amount of income of potential tenants, only the source. Vancouver, WA’s ordinance, passed two years ago, requires the following to be counted as acceptable: “income derived from social security, supplemental security income, other retirement programs, and any federal, state, local, or nonprofit-administered benefit or subsidy programs, including housing assistance, public assistance, and general assistance programs.”

The most commonly known housing subsidy is Section 8—federal assistance that is used by seniors, people who are disabled, families and individuals living below the federal poverty guidelines. These groups are among the most housing-fragile members of our community. Qualified recipients receive a Housing Choice Voucher for supplemental rent assistance that is paid directly to the landlord. And there are groups that use other means of assistance like Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers. Veterans who use these types of vouchers are at risk of becoming homeless without this subsidy, and can currently be legally discriminated against in Bellingham.

Cities with SOID ordinances can have access to state funds that provide for an insurance and damage mitigation fund to minimize the risks to landlords through the local Housing Authority. The City should also consider augmenting this type of fund and separately create a rental rehab program that makes funding available to landlords willing to rent to low-income tenants to make required upgrades in order to pass Bellingham Housing Authority or Section 8 inspection. And Bellingham has an opportunity to learn from other jurisdictions like Vancouver: Enforcement for SOID should be done through civil infractions, not the courts.

Senate Bill 5407 was introduced last session in Olympia to address SOID statewide, but failed to advance to the House. Across Washington state, Auburn, Bellevue, King County, Kent, Kirkland, Olympia, Redmond, Renton, Seattle, and Vancouver have SOID ordinances in place. With no immediate fix at the state level, Bellingham should be next as a local jurisdiction to end SOID.

There are currently 170 people with Section 8 seeking housing in Bellingham in a market with few vacancies. According to the Bellingham Housing Authority, only 55 percent of them will be successful. Each of them has only a time-sensitive housing voucher, and face discrimination and a lack of housing choices in the tightest rental market this community has ever seen. Another 1,200 people sit on a waiting list. If you are a veteran, person with a disability, a senior or a family with a very low income and use a housing voucher as a source of income, you face going to the back of the line. That needs to end.

Dan Hammill is the Ward 3 representative on Bellingham City Council

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