Lawrence City Commission will delay final approval of source of income protections to hear from landlords

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The Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday voted in favor of an ordinance change to create a protected class based on source of income, but will delay final approval in order to seek feedback from landlords.

The ordinance will likely come back in front of the commission in mid-January.

Lawrence’s Human Relations Commission recently advanced proposed ordinance changes that would prevent landlords from denying someone housing just because a prospective tenant’s rent money comes from housing assistance such as vouchers, settlements, benefits, subsidies, Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers and more. The advisory board had been working for about two years and researching similar ordinances in other cities.

The ordinance also provides “equal opportunity to obtain housing regardless of … status as a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking or stalking.”

The commission voiced general approval for the concept, but Mayor Lisa Larsen said she was concerned about passing the ordinance without further engagement with local landlords.

Commissioner Amber Sellers said she thinks that the further the city pushes this along, “we weaken it.”

“If deferring it is a way to satisfy something that we think is going to make this better, which it doesn’t sound like it is, then I am a little disappointed that we would do that,” Sellers said.

Sellers questioned what “enough” engagement would look like to the other commissioners. She suggested approving the change on a first read, then having it come back to the commission in about a month for final approval, with more engagement to be done in the meantime. Other commissioners agreed to that.

City Manager Craig Owens said it would be easy to do a mailer to reach out to landlords, then set up a public meeting to engage further.

Some local housing advocates and HRC members were present at the meeting to answer commissioners’ questions about the proposed changes. Katie Barnett, chair of the HRC, told commissioners the ordinance change would not force landlords to accept vouchers — it would simply even the playing field to increase access to housing.

Mariel Ferreiro, landlord liaison for the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, said that right now, 63 households have vouchers in hand and are actively seeking housing. That’s up from 51 on Thursday. LDCHA has probably lost 1,000 rental units over the past year that used to take vouchers, Ferreiro said.

Some advocates also spoke during public comment. Melanie Valdez, interim executive director of the Lawrence Community Shelter, said the shelter is likely looking at getting fewer than 40 people into housing this year compared to approximately 115 last year. She said that’s not solely because of source of income discrimination, but that is a large part of the problem. In addition, she said several property management companies have decided not to renew tenants’ leases based on them receiving some sort of assistance.

The Human Relations Commission had included immigration as a protected class in its proposed ordinance. That did not appear in the ordinance the commission considered Tuesday.

Some who provided public comment spoke in favor of the ordinance change, but against the removal of immigration status as a protected class.

City Attorney Toni Wheeler said legal staff members had concerns about some of the other pieces of the HRC’s proposed ordinance, including the immigration piece. Wheeler said it would require additional legal research, but that they could bring it back to the commission in February.

The motion to approve source of income and survivor status as protected classes passed 4-1. Commissioner Brad Finkeldei was opposed, not because he isn’t in favor of the protection but because he wanted to consider immigration status at the same time, he said.

If all goes as planned, the ordinance will be back before the Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday, Jan. 17.

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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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