Kent City Council considers law to protect low-income tenants

The Kent City Council agreed it wants to adopt an ordinance to help protect low-income tenants who pay part of their rent with Section 8 vouchers or other government assistance.

The council discussed for about 90 minutes at a workshop Nov. 29 what steps it could take to prevent landlords from using source of income to discriminate against tenants by refusing to rent to them or evicting them. The specifics of the ordinance have yet to be determined.

“I want Section 8 protection but I don’t want that to be the only source,” Councilwoman Tina Budell said. “We have veterans who are disabled and receiving SSI (Supplemental Security Income). They are receiving their medical retirement because they can’t work. They shouldn’t be thrown out on the streets either.

“We have a community of developmentally disabled adults trying to work in the community who still get SSI. They shouldn’t be denied housing either. …There needs to be some protection that they at least have safe housing instead of going motel to motel or living in a car.”

A dispute last month in Renton between renters who receive Section 8 vouchers and landlords who wanted to evict those tenants, led the Renton City Council to adopt an emergency ordinance that prohibits landlords from discriminating against tenants or potential tenants based on their participation in the Section 8 housing program. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds and administers the program.

Although managers of a few apartment complexes in Kent have looked at getting rid of tenants who pay with Section 8 vouchers, the city didn’t face the same emergency issue as Renton where nearly 70 families faced eviction notices.

Councilman Dennis Higgins said he would like to see action by the Legislature. He also wanted more information about the laws in place to protect tenants in Seattle and Vancouver.

City staff plans to return with more specifics for a potential ordinance to the council’s Economic and Community Development Committee on Jan. 9 and possibly to the full seven-member council later in January.

The council agreed it needed to do something before waiting for state legislators to take action.

“When I first heard about the subject matter this evening I was really concerned about rent control and I’m not interested in that at all,” Councilman Les Thomas said. “But on the other hand I believe strongly in this no income discrimination. …We can’t just wait on the state. We need to try to solve our local problems with us.”

Merina Hanson, city housing and human services director, told the council at the start of its workshop about potential steps it could take to protect lower income individuals and families.

“There is no mystery that rents are rising,” Hanson said. “And I do want to be clear because there does seem to be a little bit of confusion out there – none of the protections you guys are considering actually do anything to prevent rent from going up. It’s illegal in the state of Washington to have rent control. What these protections do provide is more of a fairness for those who are seeking housing and to remain stably housed.

“It’s more an issue of ensuring that everybody is treated fairly than it is about rent control.”

Stephen Norman, executive director of the King County Housing Authority that oversees Section 8 vouchers, told the council that Kent has 1,627 tenants who receive the vouchers based on income. More than 20,000 vouchers are used throughout the county.

When rents go up, the subsidies also go up each year, he said.

“A lot of Kent is in a tier-two market (rental rates) and our subsidy on a two-bedroom unit can go up to $1,240 and we will adjust that in 2017 to about $1,460,” Norman said.

Kent residents in the program include 493 people who are disabled and 369 senior citizens. The vouchers also cover families with more than 2,000 children.

“The program is intended to provide a safety net for people who otherwise would be out on the street,” Norman said.

It’s a long waiting list, however, to get the vouchers. The national funding is only enough to cover about one out of five eligible households.

Nearly 22,000 county households applied two years ago for vouchers. Officials used a lottery to select 2,500 on a wait list but only about 300 to 400 vouchers are turned in each year when people leave the program.

With the high demand for apartments in a strong economy, landlords haven’t had any trouble filling up units so some have looked to go away from people who receive government assistance, in part because they no longer would be subject to apartment inspections as part of the Section 8 program, Norman said.

“There is a level of stigma against Section 8 voucher holders,” Norman said. “There is a prejudice out there that associates Section 8 with poverty and crime. But when you dig down into it we’re not seeing anything to back that. But when landlords look to re-rent properties in this market that’s one thing they look at.”

Under the new Renton law, landlords are subject to fines if they discriminate against a renter or potential renter who receives Section 8 housing.