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Lawrence City Commission delays tenant source of income protections to address real estate concerns

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The Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday delayed final action again on an ordinance change that would no longer allow landlords to deny someone housing based solely on their source of income.

The proposed ordinance changes would create a protected class, so landlords could not discriminatorily deny housing just because a prospective tenant’s rent payment would come from assistance such as vouchers, settlements, benefits, subsidies, Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers and more.

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The city’s Human Relations Commission advanced the proposed changes after 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 Lawrence City Commission on Dec. 13 voiced general approval for the ordinance but delayed a final vote in order to seek landlords’ feedback on the proposed tenant protections.

Almost four dozen people spoke to the commission over the course of nearly two hours Tuesday evening. About three quarters of them, including a few who identified themselves as landlords, spoke in favor of the ordinance.

But a few public commenters from the real estate sector shared concerns with some of the language in the ordinance around home sales that they thought could be problematic, create conflicts or lead to unintended consequences. There has been quite a bit of conversation around the tenant-landlord aspects of the ordinance, but less about the real estate concerns.

Commissioner Amber Sellers said she hated to see the ordinance being deferred again, but she would not be opposed to deferring until Feb. 14 to give city staff time to work with the HRC and community partners to tweak that piece.

“Any way we can add a variable to make someone successful, that’s a win for our community, and we have to look at it that way,” Sellers said. “If not, we’re using conscious as well as unconscious biases to prevent people from being successful in our community, and essentially what we’re telling them is they don’t belong here. And that’s huge. So I do support this ordinance.”

Mayor Lisa Larsen said she was “definitely interested” in narrowing down the legal language of the ordinance with regard to cash-only sales and real estate transactions.

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said he had looked at some other states’ and municipalities’ ordinances, and some of those had included source of income protections in real estate transactions.

“There’s ways to do it, and again, lots of people have done it,” he said. During the meeting, though, he said he was unsure what the right answer would be to modify the proposed ordinance to address the concerns.

The commission also wants the HRC to consider a timeline for when the ordinance should go into effect if and when it passes, in order to allow enough time for public education.

Katie Barnett, chair of the HRC, said the advisory board’s next meeting would be in early February, and board members could discuss that question during their meeting. A meeting agenda was not yet posted on the city’s website as of Tuesday night.

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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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