In Seattle, 2016 was the year of the renter. Thanks to a number of new laws from the Seattle City Council, landlords here can no longer raise rents on substandard buildings. They can no longer refuse to rent their properties to certain tenants just because those tenants depend on programs like Social Security to help pay their rent. And many landlords will soon be required to allow tenants to pay their up-front move-in costs over the course of several months, making it easier for low-income people to move into housing.
In a city where more than half of all dwellings are rentals, where black households have seen their incomes fall even as the median household income has risen, and where a significant number of the city's new young residents are finding jobs at the lowest end of the income scale, these are big victories. But costly housing and discriminatory landlords are not just Seattle problems. These problems exist outside the city limits, too—including in the just-outside-Seattle suburbs where the low-income people now being pushed out of this city are most likely to land. This means Seattle's victories are not enough.
Take one of the most important items on that list of Seattle wins in 2016: protecting renters from discrimination based on how they pay their rent. Across the country, even as laws protect people from housing discrimination based on their race, gender, and sexual identity, landlords in many states can still reject potential tenants because they pay their rent using government vouchers, social security, child support, or other nontraditional sources. Housing advocates argue that this dynamic—known as source of income discrimination—can quickly become a proxy for discrimination based on race, disability, or other factors.
Yet, while Seattle and a handful of other Washington cities have addressed this type of discrimination, nothing in state law prevents landlords outside those cities from continuing it. And although protections against this type of discrimination have been repeatedly introduced over the last decade, lawmakers in Olympia have not acted. Last session, a bill outlawing source of income discrimination passed the Democrat-controlled state house, but the Republican-dominated state senate refused to hear it.
The consequences of our state lawmakers' failure to act came into sharp relief for Toya Thomas, a 41-year-old single mother of three in Renton, when a notice appeared on the door of her three-bedroom apartment in August notifying her that her landlord would soon stop taking Section 8 vouchers. The federally funded Section 8 program provides rental assistance for low-income people, people with disabilities, and the elderly and is notoriously competitive. Tenants can wait months to get a voucher and then struggle to find a landlord willing to take that voucher before it expires. Thomas, who doesn't currently work because of a medical condition, has depended on that voucher for more than 10 years.
When she learned she'd have to leave her apartment in Renton, Thomas says, "All I kept thinking was, 'You're gonna be out there in the freezing air [homeless] with these kids.'" Thomas began searching frantically for a new place to live, a search that "became like an addiction" keeping her up at night. She says she made a portfolio with photos of her kids in their church clothes to show to potential landlords. She was constantly making calls and scanning Craigslist, only to be told by multiple landlords they didn't take Section 8.
"That's what you're going through all day," Thomas says. "You're selling yourself... and you're still being turned down. There are no words to express or articulate that feeling."
In testimony and documents, the Rental Housing Association of Washington, which represents landlords and has fought against tenant protections at the state and local level, has claimed that landlords may have "legitimate business reasons" for not wanting to accept vouchers like the federally funded Section 8 program, including burdensome paperwork. The group has argued that the state should focus on liaison programs to connect tenants and landlords, rather than new regulations. Other landlords, like Bremerton's Jim Adrian, have disputed that argument to state lawmakers. Adrian told a house committee last year that accepting Section 8 tenants has not created an extra burden for him and that the tenants on the program have been "superb."
Although some Republicans have been sympathetic to the Rental Housing Association's position, the fight is not purely partisan. State senator Mark Miloscia—the Federal Way Republican who has made a name for himself recently by taking a hard line against safe drug consumption sites and claiming Seattle needs "adult supervision" in addressing its homelessness crisis—was a cosponsor of last's year bill to ban source of income discrimination. Maureen Walsh, a Republican representative-turned-senator from Walla Walla, has been supportive in the past, too.
In other words: Even as the national Republican Party has ascended on promises to slash government benefits and curb regulation—and even as their constituents in rural America have bought into the narrative that less, not more, government help will lift them out of economic hardship—at least a couple Republicans in Washington State have taken the opposite tack. They have recognized the value in a government regulation meant to protect low-income people from the worst of the private market—either because they are moderates who've always recognized some value in government oversight or because our state's housing crisis has become so acute, they now have no alternative.
The result: Even though Democrats failed to retake control of the Washington State Senate in this year's election, advocates are hopeful. Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and one of the lead lobbyists for the bill, says housing pressures across the state could give the bill a new urgency this year. Homelessness increased about 7 percent statewide this year, and a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that a minimum-wage worker in Washington making $9.47 an hour—the minimum wage in most places outside of Seattle before the statewide increase voters passed in November—would have to work 78 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment in the state.
"With what's happened recently around rising rents, the importance of homelessness being addressed—not just in Seattle but across the state—and the many families impacted in Renton recently, I think all these things together will push lawmakers to seriously address this issue," Thomas says.
State senator David Frockt, the Seattle Democrat who plans to sponsor a source of income discrimination bill this year, is more cautious. Standing before a group of housing and homelessness advocates gathered in Seattle's Central District in December, Frockt urged them to reach out to people all over Washington to lobby for the bill.
"I've been in many fights over the years between tenant advocacy groups and the landlord lobby," Frockt said. "This is always a tough battle... Everyone within 10 miles of this spot is going to be very supportive, but we do have to build that coalition."
After Toya Thomas and her neighbors faced eviction in Renton, the city council there quickly passed a ban on discrimination against Section 8 tenants (though that city still allows for discrimination based on social security or other forms of income). Thomas eventually found a new, smaller apartment in Kent and says she's starting to settle in.
If the state legislature again fails to act, local rules like the ones passed in Renton and Seattle will offer tenants some refuge. But it "would not be accurate" to say local lawmakers can stop source of income discrimination with city and county laws alone, Assistant Attorney General Colleen Melody told a state house committee last year, because people all over the state depend on vouchers and other assistance to pay their rent.
"Source of income discrimination is a state-level issue," Melody says, "and it calls for a statewide response."