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Lawrence’s Human Relations Commission pushes to ban housing discrimination based on source of income

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Proposed changes to city codes could open literal doors to many Lawrence community members in need of housing if a city advisory board’s recommendations become law.

The Human Relations Commission voted Thursday to advance to the Lawrence City Commission recommendations that call for protections from discrimination that is based on source of income, survivor status or immigration status.

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The advisory board’s recommended language around source of income would prevent landlords from denying housing because someone’s money comes from housing assistance such as vouchers, settlements and more. In a survey of 115 available rental properties in Lawrence in May 2021, 80% did not accept housing choice vouchers, according to a presentation in the meeting materials.

Board members also recommend adding language to protect housing for survivors of domestic violence and/or sexual assault, and regardless of immigration or citizenship status.

“The biggest thing that I want to say to the commission and to the public is that this source of income issue and housing inequity is not new,” HRC Chair Katie Barnett said during the meeting. “This is not a new idea that we came up with, and it’s not COVID-related.”

“I think that there’s a sentiment that our housing issues are directly related to COVID, and while that may have enhanced the need, it’s not directly related,” Barnett continued. “Refusing to accept vouchers or nontraditional sources of income keeps our city segregated and unhoused. It’s systemic, and it disproportionately impacts people of color in our community.”

Barnett noted that an HRC subcommittee found that source of income discrimination was a systemic issue, and that was affirmed by a housing needs assessment conducted for the city and county and published in May.

Commissioner Caleb Stephens said he thought it was important that the commission propose these changes and show that although the HRC has “been kind of swimming trying to figure out what our actual impact can be” for the community, the proposed changes solidify the fact that the HRC is intentional about at least making firm recommendations.

“I think that it’s really important — the language changes and just the fact that we’re seeing (protections for) people that are otherwise ignored and completely isolated and further marginalized,” Stephens said.

The HRC has put in work, clearly evidenced by a 450-page research packet to go along with their recommendations. Barnett said commission members have worked with local, state and national experts to research and review.

The HRC now hopes the Lawrence City Commission will push for community conversations and engagement over the proposed changes, and send them on to the city’s legal department to draft an ordinance.

“I know that this ordinance is a chess-not-checkers approach to our houselessness issue in Lawrence, but this is something that really catches us up with other similarly situated cities, and we can be the best in the state of Kansas and in our region if the city commission chooses to draft an ordinance,” Barnett said. “… I hope that this is a small step in advancing equity in our city.”

The Affordable Housing Advisory Board voted unanimously Thursday afternoon to submit a letter supporting the changes to the Lawrence City Commission.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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