In 2016, Toya Thomass received notice her landlord would no longer accept her Section 8 voucher. In Washington, that could become illegal.
In 2016, Toya Thomas's received notice her landlord would no longer accept her Section 8 voucher. In Washington, that could become illegal. JONATHAN VANDERWEIT

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The Washington State House and Senate each passed bills Friday to bar landlords from discriminating against tenants who pay their rent with Section 8 vouchers or other assistance. The move is welcome news for housing advocates, who have for years pushed for the policy known as "source of income discrimination protection."

"It was historic that it got bipartisan support in both the House and Senate," says Michele Thomas, a lobbyist for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. "It was an extraordinary feeling to watch it be voted on with the support of moderates as well as progressives who've always seen this as good policy."

The bad news for supporters of the policy is the recent House and Senate votes aren't enough to send the bill to the governor's desk and into law. The House and Senate each considered their own versions of the same bill, rather than "companion" bills. That means one chamber needs to approve the other's bill to send it to the governor. That leaves advocates racing against the clock to make sure lawmakers in either the House or the Senate schedule the necessary hearings and votes to pass the bill by March 8, when the session ends.

If passed, the bill would prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to prospective tenants based on how they get their income, including their use of public assistance, housing vouchers like Section 8, social security, or other legal means. It would also create a mitigation fund to reimburse landlords whose rental units are damaged by tenants using housing vouchers or other assistance programs. Because low-income people may be less able to pay high security deposits, the mitigation fund "helps provide security for landlords," Thomas says. The mitigation program would be funded by an increase to a fee charged on documents recorded by county auditors. That fee, which funds housing and shelter programs, would increase from $10 to $13 to fund the new program.

Seattle outlawed discrimination based on source of income within the city in 2016. But as low-income people are increasingly pushed to cheaper suburbs, they face a patchwork of laws among regional cities. Some allow this type of discrimination and others ban it. In Renton, Toya Thomas, a single mother of three, found a notice on her apartment door in 2016 informing her that her landlord would no longer accept Section 8 vouchers. That city later approved a ban on discrimination based on income.

In speeches before the votes on Friday, supportive lawmakers emphasized the affordable housing shortage.

"Everyone knows Washington has an ongoing affordable housing crisis," said Senator David Frockt (D-Seattle). "Tens of thousands of people in our state each night—not just in Seattle, but really all around our state—struggle to find housing and are homeless. I think all of us would agree that no one should be denied a home just because they're using the mechanisms that we give them as a society: rental vouchers and housing assistance vouchers." Frockt said 14 other states already bar source of income discrimination.

In the House, Seattle Democratic Representative Nicole Macri said the bill is an "essential tool in helping people get into the housing that does exist."

All but one vote against the bill came from Republicans. (Senator Tim Sheldon, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, also voted no.) Arguing against the bill, Ellensburg Republican Representative Matt Manweller—who is on leave from his teaching job for alleged sexual harassment but continues in the legislature as if nothing is happening—voted against the bill. He called it "contradictory" to say low-income tenants are not a risk for landlords but also create a mitigation fund for damages. Manweller called on the legislature to "protect the rights of landlords to make their own decisions about who they rent to."

The Senate approved the bill 33-14; the House approved it 61-37.