During the public-comment period at Monday’s meeting of the Seattle City Council, Chea Berra, a tenant counselor with the housing nonprofit Solid Ground, told the story of a disabled woman who had reached out for rental assistance.
The woman had been approved for an apartment, Berra said, and had even obtained a letter from the landlord saying so, but was suddenly told that the unit had been given to someone else—someone who had applied after she did. The sudden switch happened, Berra noted, “only after our case manager contacted the landlord about providing move-in assistance. So now, the woman, who recently had a stroke, her disabled son, and disabled elderly mother are on the streets.
“This is what happens,” she continued, her voice rising. “And we should be angry. What does it matter if we as a community come together to help people find and retain homes, if landlords can freely create barriers to housing?”
Berra was speaking in support of an anti-discrimination ordinance that the City Council went on to pass unanimously on Monday—an ordinance that makes it illegal for Seattle landlords to discriminate against renters who use alternative sources of income, such as Social Security Disability Insurance, veterans’ benefits, or pledges from community organizations like Solid Ground. The law requires landlords to give housing to the first qualified tenant who applies—not to cherry-pick those who seem more stable, more wealthy, or, for unnamed reasons, more worthy of a place to live.
The ordinance—which is expected to be signed by Mayor Ed Murray—will be a salve for many frustrated renters in the city, and comes as part of Seattle’s affordability “grand bargain” between tenant advocates and developers.
But at its heart, the new law is really about homelessness and the role the city’s landlords should play in its elimination—addressing the yawning cavern that separates the homeless from the housed.
As Berra asked, how can we say we are coming together as a city to help the thousands of unsheltered to find permanent homes, if we allow the private market to effectively shut them out, even as they use the very public assistance that we’ve made available to help solve the problem? How is it that the city can pour money into short-term rent-assistance programs such as those created by a taxpayer-funded housing levy (which passed with 68 percent of the vote last week) if landlords aren’t required to weigh those applicants equally with other applicants?
How, indeed, can the homeless find housing if we refuse to house them because they’re homeless?
A Washington Community Action Network study conducted recently found that nearly half of all renters in Seattle who rely on Social Security disability or retirement income found that their means of income was a barrier to obtaining housing. And though it’s violated city law for a quarter-century, discrimination against those who pay for housing with federal Section 8 vouchers is also rampant. Last year, the city’s Office of Civil Rights filed 23 charges of discrimination after fair-housing testing showed that nearly two-thirds of tests using Section 8 vouchers resulted in different treatment for those prospective tenants.
“Our city is a city of renters,” ordinance sponsor Councilmember Lisa Herbold said during the City Council meeting on Monday. “Their interests must be protected if we intend to reduce the number of people living homeless.”
Of course, landlords may feel uncomfortable that city law now limits their ability to choose their tenants, weeding out those with seemingly uncertain income on account of the nature of rental assistance. However, those fears should be assuaged by data. City figures show that more than 80 percent of those who use emergency housing assistance to get apartments were still in those apartments six months after the assistance ended. In other words, obtaining housing has the exact stabilizing effects we’d expect it to.
Herbold’s measure will not entirely solve Seattle’s homelessness problem. But it will help, and it will send a clear message: When it comes to the homeless, it is all hands on deck, landlords included.