Post last updated at 9:23 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 14:
Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday approved an ordinance change that creates a protected class based on source of income, as well as status as a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking or stalking. The change also disallows discrimination based on prospective tenants’ immigration status.
It means that landlords will not be able to discriminatorily deny someone housing just because their rent money will come from a housing voucher, settlement, benefit, subsidy, Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher and more.
Commissioner Amber Sellers shared that when she was in graduate school, she was laid off from her job and received a voucher for housing. She requested one month, but received two months of payments. In that two months, she was able to secure unemployment, find a new job and continue her studies, and eventually she made her way into the job she’s blessed to have today.
“That’s because I didn’t have a landlord who thought less of me,” she said. “I didn’t lose my lease because at one point in my life, I received assistance.”
Many large, out-of-state landlords have stopped accepting vouchers in Lawrence, Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said — but he said in speaking to those landlords, they have said they accept them in cities or states that require them to accept vouchers, and they don’t accept them in places that don’t. He said he thought that was a pretty compelling argument.
He said he’s spoken to many smaller landlords, too, and has heard many fears.
“The more you look into it, I think a lot of the fears don’t pan out,” Finkeldei said.
He said he hoped landlords would not raise their rents to avoid the voucher system.
The city’s Human Relations Commission advanced the proposed changes after working for about two years and researching similar ordinances in other cities.
Local housing advocates have said that source of income protections could significantly help lessen Lawrence’s housing and homelessness crises, because many families who qualify for housing vouchers are unable to find landlords who will accept them.
Immigration status was included in the HRC’s initial proposed ordinance, but city staff did not include it in the version of the ordinance that the city commissioners originally considered. Assistant City Attorney Zach Fridell said Tuesday that after the city’s review, legal staff members had found that including immigration status would not be in conflict with federal laws or state statutes.
Commissioners approved the ordinance change on a 5-0 vote. It goes into effect June 1.
Not too many people enjoy doing one-piece puzzle pieces, Sellers said, and not too many people like to do five-piece puzzles; the housing issues the city of Lawrence faces are 1,000-piece puzzles. She said community members should take a step back and think about what we’re doing to elevate others.
Sellers also said she agreed with public commenters who said there was a need for service providers and organizations to get better connected and tuned into these conversations.
“I feel like that (June 1 effective date) gives us time to start to start breaking down the silos and start having the discussions — discussions that we’ve had. Some of us just haven’t come to the table,” Sellers said. She called for community members to bring their chairs to the table and be slow to speak, and quick to listen.
Commissioners heard from 29 members of the public, about two-thirds of whom spoke strongly in favor of the ordinance change.
One person who spoke was James Vann, a veteran who said he has been homeless since July 9, 2021. He said he would probably have to move to Topeka to use a housing voucher he qualifies for as a veteran because he hasn’t found a landlord who will accept one in Lawrence, but he feels like he should have the right to stay in his hometown.
Another member of the public, Alkemy Roanoke, said high property values make home ownership unreachable for the vast majority of tenants. Additionally, rising property values increase property taxes, which burdens both property owners and tenants.
“The fact that the bottom line of real estate agencies and landlords is even placed on the same level of importance as providing housing to human beings is beyond absurd and only makes sense if you understand the contours of the class warfare being waged across the city,” they said.
Lawrence city commissioners had previously indicated that they were in favor of the ordinance change, but they delayed approval, first to hear more from landlords and then to deal with some concerns about how the change would impact real estate. (Read more previous coverage of this issue at this link.)