D.M. officials oppose legislation allowing landlords to reject renters who use federal vouchers

By: - January 29, 2021 12:22 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds has thrown out city ordinances banning discrimination based on the use of federal housing vouchers. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa state lawmakers are making another run at banning cities from preventing housing discrimination based on tenants’ use of federal rent vouchers.

Sen. Tom Shipley, R-Nodaway, introduced Senate Study Bill 1079 on behalf of the Local Government Committee, setting up what is likely to be another spirited fight. Last session saw committee meetings packed before a similar bill stalled in the House after passing the Senate. 

The topic re-emerged at a Des Moines City Council legislative briefing earlier this week.

“We had a long battle with this last year,” through the end of the session, Assistant City Manager Jen Schulte told council members.

Des Moines and Iowa City have ordinances prohibiting landlords from rejecting tenants because on the source of funds they use to pay rent, in many cases federal housing aid.  Those local laws would be thrown out if the bill passes the Legislature and is signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds.  

“This would prohibit cities and counties from adopting ordinances that prohibit landlords from refusing to accept federal housing vouchers,” Schulte told council members. “We are actively working to oppose (the bill). We are working with key stakeholders around the state.” 

Schulte said city officials are checking to see if the bill would affect the city’s effort to help prevent evictions and to offer rent assistance using federal aid during the pandemic. “So we are definitely on high alert with this bill,” Schulte said.

The Iowa Landlord Association, Landlords of Iowa, Eastlake Partnership, Greater Iowa Apartment Association and the Iowa Real Estate Investors Association favor the bill, according to state lobbyist declarations. Lobbying against the legislation are the cities of Des Moines, Waukee and Iowa City and the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Iowa Housing Partnership, the Iowa League of Cities, the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Iowa Catholic Conference, and the Metropolitan Coalition, among others.

The legislation has been proposed even as the governor, the GOP leadership that controls both chambers of the Legislature, business groups, municipal governments and advocates for low income housing all have said increasing Iowa’s affordable housing is one of the state’s most pressing needs.

Landlords have contended the city ordinances infringe on their rights.  In last year’s debate, Michael Triplett, representing the Greater Iowa Apartment Association, said landlords want decisions related to accepting the Section 8 certificates to be voluntary rather than forced by cities. Some landlords accept Section 8, and some don’t, he said.

“When a local ordinance requires property managers to accept a Section 8 housing voucher as a legal source of income, the program is no longer voluntary,” Triplett said in an interview. “As a result, some property managers could find themselves required to participate in the Section 8 program without their desire or consent or after an internal assessment of the potential costs and benefits of participation.”

Critics say the bill gives landlords a way to discriminate against potential renters based on race, income or other factors, using the federal aid as cover for their decisions.

Last session, Des Moines City Councilman Josh Mandelbaum said landlords want to use the legislation to hide the very bias the city was trying to stop when it passed the ordinance.

“It’s fear based on stereotypes,” Mandelbaum said of landlords’ reasons for spurning the renters. “It’s not based on reality. One of the things we know is that folks with Section 8 vouchers provide stability and they are very good tenants. The landlords don’t want someone there because of race or ethnicity, but (banning them for that) is illegal, so they will say it’s because of Section 8.”

At this week’s legislative briefing, Des Moines City Manager Scott Sanders said he wonders why landlords would accept federal pandemic assistance, but not federal aid designed to help low-income families. 

“We asked the question of them (about) how they differentiate between the COVID assistance and the landlords’ willingness to accept that but not the Section 8 voucher,” the aid to low-income families at the heart of the legislation, Sanders said.

“We have families that have economic hardship, like what others have seen with COVID, on an ongoing basis,” Sanders added.

Responded Councilwoman Connie Boesen: “I’m sure they’re very anxious to take the COVID money.”

This year’s Senate bill is narrower than last session’s, which critics said would have applied to veterans’ benefits and other federal aid, too. The Senate bill now focuses on Section 8, also called housing choice vouchers.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.