Austin sued over ordinance that aims to stop housing discrimination

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Apartment Association announced on Friday it filed a lawsuit against the City of Austin after council members unanimously approved an ordinance that would stop landowners from discriminating against potential renters with housing vouchers.

“It’s not that we have anything against the voucher or the person that’s the recipient of the voucher, it’s the program itself,” said Robbie Robinson, president of the Austin Apartment Association (AAA).  “It’s this big book of regulations and rules that we would have to agree to and contract with the government.”

The group said it is upset that a once-voluntary federal program is now being forced on them. Robinson said landowners don’t want to be pushed into a partnership with the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and its Section 8 programing. It means more rules, regulations, inspections, maintenance, reporting and other compliance regulations which create a burden for landowners, she added.

“It is one thing to say when all else is equal, one cannot exclude persons of different color, creed and sex,” said Craig Enoch, a retired justice of the Supreme Court who’s firm is representing the AAA. “It is entirely a different thing to deprive property owners of their valuable right to determine the terms they will allow their property to be occupied by others.”

He said he is confident their lawsuit will stand because the federal government said the program should be voluntary and it is a mandate the state prohibits. The group, which met with city attorneys Friday, has asked the Travis County District Court for an injunction to block the Source of Income Ordinance, which is supposed to go into effect on Jan. 12.

“For the small segment of community that would need housing for those vouchers, there is an issue. You get together and you figure out how you have more units available for those in need, but you don’t bring a sledge hammer to drive a tin penny nail,” said Enoch. “You don’t bring a sledge hammer which brings 90 percent of these units and make them all the owners of those units all comply.”

The Housing Authority of the City of Austin said there are 5,600 people who receive Section 8 housing.

Supporters of the ordinance believe this measure will help expand the housing options for veterans, people with disabilities, the working poor and the elderly.

“We were really excited about the opportunity to not be discriminated against, for people seeking housing locally, so it was a victory,” said Christa Noland, executive director of Green Doors. “We’ve always said you can’t discriminate on someone’s race or those sort of issues, now we’re saying if you receive government subsidies, it’s OK to discriminate the people who receive these subsides who are predominately people of color. It feels like this is another way people can discriminate.”

Noland said Green Doors is actually a member of the Austin Apartment Association because it owns property and leases it to veterans and the working poor, the people who are most vulnerable of becoming homeless.

She said they disagree with this lawsuit.

“We believe everyone in this community deserves a roof over their head,“ said Noland. “I think the message is they want tenants that look a certain way or to be a certain way and people that live in poverty may not fit their favorite or perfect resident for their community. However, I believe all residents can contribute and be wonderful residents to any community.”

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