Judge will allow Lawrence protections for housing voucher recipients to take effect

Share this post or save for later

Post last updated at 4:03 p.m. Tuesday, May 30:

A judge on Tuesday denied a request from a group of Lawrence landlords to halt a city ordinance that bans landlords from denying someone housing based on their source of income or immigration status.

Landlords of Lawrence (LOL) — an association of 30-plus local landlords, a member estimated during his testimony — filed a lawsuit in Douglas County District Court attempting to prevent parts of a city ordinance change from going into effect.

The Lawrence City Commission on Feb. 14 approved the ordinance change, which creates a protected class based on renters’ source of income, as well as their status as a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking or stalking. It also disallows discrimination based on prospective tenants’ immigration status.

The change, which goes into effect Thursday, 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.

Local housing advocates have said that the 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.

LOL’s lawsuit is ongoing, but Douglas County District Court Judge Mark Simpson on Tuesday denied the group’s motion requesting a temporary injunction to prevent the ordinance from going into effect this week. That means the ordinance will move forward as planned while the case is in litigation.

In court filings, LOL says the language of the city’s ordinance is unconstitutionally vague. They say it is unclear what the city means by “source of income,” and that the ordinance infringes on their discretion as businesspeople.

Adam Hall, attorney for LOL, argued that the ordinance could require landlords to accept a tenant whose income is derived from drug sales, for example. Simpson asked if a landlord could potentially deny someone housing not just because their income is from selling drugs, but because they’re engaged in a criminal enterprise. Hall said that landlord might have a defense, but he didn’t think a person of reasonable intelligence would be able to tell definitively whether that is included in the ordinance.

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times Attorney Adam Hall takes notes while the judge speaks, May 30, 2023.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development oversees numerous programs that help people get housing, including housing choice vouchers. Billy Williams, a member of LOL who is a landlord as his second job, testified that he has a tenant who needed to use housing vouchers, and he was able to work with them to help them remain housed. However, Williams said his concern was learning about other programs that HUD administers.

Williams said he thought he would need to hire someone to administer other programs, which is not an option for him. His other option would be to sell his properties, which he would also be unable to do because he already has binding leases with tenants.

Michelle Stewart, counsel for the City of Lawrence, asked Williams whether he had needed to hire someone to administer the housing choice voucher program. He said he did not.

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times Michelle Stewart, counsel for the City of Lawrence, listens to the judge on May 30, 2023.

Stewart argued to the judge that LOL had not met the conditions needed for the court to issue an injunction.

She said the landlords had not shown that there would be irreparable harm if the ordinance were to take effect. Rather than hearing anything concrete about how the landlords would be harmed, the judge had heard, “‘I’m afraid,’ ‘I don’t like it,’ … ‘I don’t want to do it,'” she said.

However, Stewart said, voucher holders who are seeking housing this summer — while many leases are ending and units are becoming available — could suffer harm from not being able to find housing. She said the harm to the citizens of the city would far outweigh any harm or perceived harm to the landlords.

Gallal Obeid, vice president of program operations for the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, testified that once someone is offered a housing voucher, they have 60 days to find a landlord who will accept it. They can get two 30-day extensions, but if they don’t find a place in that time frame, they lose their voucher and go back on the waiting list, which takes 12 to 18 months on average.

Simpson said there were legitimate concerns on both sides of the issue regarding the public interest. LOL has an interest related to their ability to continue doing business, and the city says the public interest is in limiting the discretion of landlords in the way the ordinance describes, he said. He did not have enough evidence Tuesday to find that an injunction would not be adverse to the public interest, he said.

Advertisement

LOL had also argued that the ordinance would force landlords to house people who are in the United State illegally, which could put them at risk of prosecution for harboring a tenant.

Simpson, in his ruling, said it was a “little bit closer call,” but he was unable to say that the immigration status requirements of the city ordinance were in conflict with federal law. He said it was unclear to him that the ordinance would require landlords to do anything that would be considered “harboring” under federal law. He said there was no federal policy that no services of any kind could be provided to someone who is here unlawfully.

Simpson also said the wording in the ordinance regarding the meaning of “source of income” was broad, but he didn’t find it vague.

Simpson said his ruling after Tuesday’s three-hour hearing was not a final determination on the case. The case will continue, though the next court date was not yet set. Stewart said she intends to file a motion to dismiss the case.

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times Adam Hall (left) and Billy Williams listen as Judge Mark Simpson (center) speaks, May 30, 2023.

“We are disappointed by the decision made by the district court, but we look forward to proceeding in this case and demonstrating the harm this ordinance is likely to visit upon those who provide housing in this city,” Hall said after court.

In an additional statement sent via email after court, Williams said: “We strive every day to provide quality housing to people from all walks of life — including college students, families, senior citizens, and veterans. Our hard work and financial investments in the community make homes available to tens of thousands of Lawrence residents, meeting an important need in the local marketplace. Our goal is to continue to expand the availability of rental housing in line with community needs. To do this, a fair and reasonable business environment is essential. Over-reaching government regulation, such as the city commission’s recent ordinance, doesn’t help people. It harms them.”

Toni Wheeler, city attorney, said via email Tuesday that the city is pleased with the court’s decision and encouraged that the ordinance will become effective June 1.

“It will strengthen the anti-discrimination provisions already in City Code with protections that already exist in many states and cities across the country,” Wheeler said. “We’re always interested in ways to increase access to safe, affordable housing for everyone in our community.”

If our local journalism matters to you, please help us keep doing this work.
Don’t miss a beat … Click here to sign up for our email newsletters


Click here to learn more about our newsletters first

More coverage:

Judge will allow Lawrence protections for housing voucher recipients to take effect

Share this post or save for later

A judge on Tuesday denied a request from a group of Lawrence landlords to halt a city ordinance that bans landlords from denying someone housing based on their source of income or immigration status.

Lawrence City Commission approves ordinance changes aimed at helping people find housing

Share this post or save for later

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.

MORE …

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.

Latest Lawrence news:

MORE …

Previous Article

Jungle House to take root in new downtown Lawrence location

Next Article

Kansas education board’s attorney says abstention as substitute for ‘no’ vote an abdication of duty