R.I. bill seeks to end Section 8 stigma

Christine Dunn

Measure would prohibit discrimination against renters based on their “lawful source of income,” including a rental assistance voucher, Social Security payment or disability benefits.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The federal Housing Choice Voucher program was created during the Reagan administration to give low-income tenants a way to find housing of their own choosing in the private market, instead of being limited to Section 8-financed projects.

But in Rhode Island, that intended choice and mobility are often pre-empted by landlords who say: “No Section 8.”

Unlike Massachusetts, which outlawed this form of housing discrimination in 1971, and unlike Connecticut (1989), Maine (1975) and Vermont (1987), Rhode Island still allows landlords to proclaim “No Section 8” in advertisements, and they are allowed to say it directly to would-be tenants. In Rhode Island, about 9,300 households have vouchers.

According to Marissa Janton, legal counsel for the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, many landlords use a “no Section 8” policy as a “proxy” for discrimination based on other factors, including gender, family composition, disability, and race and ethnicity. She said that 70 percent of voucher holders in Rhode Island are families with children, 87 percent are households headed by women and 20 percent are black.

New legislation (H7528 / S2301) would prohibit discrimination against renters based on their “lawful source of income,” including a rental assistance voucher, Social Security payment or disability benefits. The law would not apply to owner-occupied buildings with three or fewer units, and it would not prevent landlords from asking prospective tenants about their income level.

Similar legislation was introduced in Rhode Island last year, and was passed in the Senate. Hearings were held on this year’s bills March 1 in the Senate Judiciary Committee and Feb. 27 in the House Judiciary Committee.

The House panel is chaired by a lawyer and Section 8 landlord, Rep. Cale Keable, D-Burrillville. Last year, Keable recused himself from proceedings on the legislation, but he led a hearing on the bill on Feb. 27. Keable did not respond directly to a request for comment, but spokesman Larry Berman emailed The Journal with a response from the chairman about why he recused himself last year, but not this year.

According to Berman, Keable recused himself last year out of “an abundance of caution.” Keable’s message said: “I attended Jason Gramitt’s ethics training earlier this year and I developed a better understanding of the class exemption, which I clearly fall under regarding this bill.”

According to Berman, Gramitt is the education coordinator for the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, and he conducts a yearly training seminar for legislators.

Berman added that state Rep. Anastasia P. Williams, D-Providence, the bill’s sponsor in the House, also owns rental property.

Keable had more to say at the Feb. 27 hearing, noting that while he supports the Section 8 program, and personally rents to people with vouchers, he worries about the right of property owners to not be “forced” to participate in the federal program, with all of its responsibilities and requirements, including a yearly inspection of the property.

Carlos Lopez, executive director of the Westerly Housing Authority, and a former Section 8 tenant, replied that public policy should support the “common good,” which, he said, should also include the interests of people who need housing.

The Rhode Island of Association of Realtors initially opposed the legislation in 2017, but added its support to a compromise measure and said this year that “our membership was pleased with improvements” to the Section 8 program “that will mitigate administrative burdens placed on landlords,” according to a letter of support from David A. Salvatore, government affairs director (and Providence City Council president).

Rep. Williams, speaking at the House Judiciary hearing, asked her colleagues to end the “blatant discrimination that has been occurring throughout the state of Rhode Island for a number of years.” She added that “many of you are very uncomfortable talking about discrimination … But it’s real. It’s very real.”

Amy Rainone, intergovernmental relations director for Rhode Island Housing, told the House Judiciary Committee that “over 50 percent of our voucher holders have been turned down” for housing because of a “no Section 8″ policy, many after waiting “5 to 8 years to get a voucher.” Rainone said this discrimination is “completely unacceptable,” and the legislation would “remove an important barrier to housing affordability” at no cost to the state.

Housing activists say the law is especially necessary in today’s tight rental market.

The legislation has been supported by many groups, including Rhode Island Housing, the Rhode Island Association of Realtors, Progreso Latino, the Economic Progress Institute, the United Way of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Rhode Island Kids Count, DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality), the Public Housing Association of Rhode Island, SouthCoast Fair Housing, and the Rhode Island Community Action Association.

At the March 1, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, the Senate sponsor, Sen. Harold M. Metts, D-Providence, said he found the “No Section 8” ads “very, very troubling,” given the stagnant wages and rising rental costs faced by many in Rhode Island.

“There’s a shortage of housing not just in Providence, but all over the state of Rhode Island,” added state Sen. Paul Jabour, D-Providence.

“This legislation is needed to make this despicable practice of discrimination against poor people illegal,” Metts said. “We must stop the negative stereotype as it relates to poor people, struggling low-income families” and the “stigma of Section 8.”

With a voucher, tenants pay 30 percent of the rent out of their own pockets, and the voucher covers the remainder, up to limits set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The voucher program is the federal government’s major housing assistance effort.

The landlord receives the housing subsidy directly from the local Housing Authority. If the local housing authority approves, vouchers may even be used to buy a modestly-priced home. Rhode Island has 25 different public housing authorities, and Rhode Island Housing serves as the public housing authority for 15 communities that don’t have their own housing authorities.

“There is nothing in this legislation that would prevent landlords from denying tenancy due to non-discriminatory criteria such as poor credit, bad references, or a failed reference check,” wrote Barbara Fields, executive director of Rhode Island Housing, in a letter of support of the bills. “What it will do is prohibit reliance on stereotypes about recipients of public assistance in determining an applicant’s suitability as a tenant.”

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