Panel advances bill on rental discrimination controversy

By: - February 2, 2021 1:06 pm
The State Capitol of Iowa reflects the sunset

The State Capitol rises above Des Moines’ East Village business district. (Photo by David Greedy/Getty Images)

A bill that would allow landlords to reject renters who want to pay with federal rent vouchers advanced Tuesday in the Iowa Legislature. 

A Senate subcommittee sent Senate Study Bill 1079 to the full Local Government Committee. Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, cast the only vote against the bill, suggesting it was an effort to allow landlords to discriminate against potential tenants based on race or income. Sens. Julian Garrett of Warren County and Mark Lofgren of Muscatine, both Republicans, voted to advance the bill.

The legislation would ban future city ordinances, and negate any on the books now, that prohibit landlords from rejecting tenants based on their use of Section 8 certificates.

The legislation would scrap ordinances in Des Moines and Iowa City that ban housing discrimination based on source of income. Des Moines leaders are lobbying against the bill, as is the Iowa League of Cities. 

The bill returned to the Legislature this year after stalling in the House last session following its passage in the Senate.  

A string of landlord organizations supported the bill Tuesday. Lobbyists argued that the decision on whether to accept Section 8 certificates should be voluntary. 

“There are landlords that have no problem participating in the program and they will be able to continue to do so,” said Jake Ketzner, representing Iowa City-based Eastlake Partnership. “There are also landlords that do not want to be forced into business with the federal government, and they’re simply seeking to make this program a voluntary basis again.”

Michael Triplett of the Greater Iowa Apartment Association said cities should offer incentives to persuade landlords to take Section 8, not try to force them. The city ordinances “unduly burden” landlords, he added. 

Quirmbach asked Triplett if the local ordinances are a violation of building owners’ property rights. Yes, Triplett responded.

“So when the federal government in the 1960s — and subsequently the state government — prohibited race discrimination in rental housing, did you also consider that to be a violation of your property rights?” Quirmbach asked Triplett.

“No, we did not,” Triplett said. 

“It is our belief that race is a class, and participation in Section 8 vouchers is not a protected class,” Triplett said. 

Replied Quirmbach: “When you discriminate on the basis of income, and income is tied to race, aren’t you effectively discriminating on the basis of race?”

“We disagree with that statement,” Triplett said. 

Garrett and Lofgren said they would consider amendments to the bill, but wanted to advance it to the full committee. 

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

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.