So Much For Local Control, This Time On Housing Discrimination

Republicans: the party of small government. Just only when it agrees with them.

Once again in Iowa, local municipalities have had to pick up the slack of their state government, passing local laws to protect vulnerable citizens when the Republican-led Legislature refuses to do so.

And once again, Republican lawmakers are now working to override those local decision.

At stake this week was the rights of renters and whether landlords should be able to effectively discriminate against people of color by targeting those who receive federal housing assistance. While it is illegal to turn down an applicant for housing based on their ethnicity, some landlords have found ways around that by refusing people with certain types of income. That’s usually been people with Section 8 housing assistance funds; black and Hispanic Americans make up a higher percentage of that than they do the general population.

But outside of race, such measures still hurt everyone in poverty. Even when someone qualifies for a federal voucher to assist with housing costs (usually it means residents only pay 30% to 40% of their income for housing), there may not be any available units because many landlords won’t accept them.

So, places like Des Moines, Iowa City and Marion have passed ordinances protecting renters by requiring landlords to accept legal forms of income.

Not so fast, legislative Republicans said.

Yesterday, Republicans on the Senate Local Government Committee advanced on a party-line vote SF 3178, a preemption bill that forbids local governments from enacting such housing ordinances that would forbid discrimination on income source.

They did pass an amendment at the outset, which changed the bill from forbidding broader “source of income” ordinances to narrowing it down to only federal housing vouchers. While that did mean that municipalities can still force landlords to accept people whose income includes Social Security, veterans’ benefits and disability benefits, it also in effect made the bill more discriminatory specifically on racial lines. By narrowing the scope to protect landlords’ ability to refuse federal housing vouchers, it made it clear the real intent of those landlords’ actions.

“Allowing landlords to discriminate against people who use the federal housing voucher is a way of discriminating against poor people and — I’m sorry, I’m going to be blunt about this — it is a way of allowing discrimination against black and brown people,” Sen. Herman Quirmbach, of Ames, said. “If you give landlords the ability to refuse people because they have a housing voucher, you open a back door to discriminate against people of racial minority.”

Quirmbach went on to note that it was still perfectly legal for landlords to refuse applicants who have criminal or drug abuse backgrounds, and that people who qualify for the federal housing assistance often go through rigorous background checks for those issues as well.

Sen. Jeff Edler, who represents large Hispanic populations in Marshalltown and the only Native American settlement in the state in Tama County, took offense.

“Poverty knows no color or bounds, to try to say this is discriminating on a black/brown basis, I really resent that. … I really discredit that comment,” Edler, the bill’s sponsor, replied. “What’s going on here is we’re forcing a private entity to participate in a contract where they have no choice. That is the issue.”

Regardless of whether Republicans want to accept a major consequence (and possible motive) of refusing housing on the basis of federal income assistance, their actions continue their party’s obsession of running roughshod over local officials when they disagree with them.

If a municipality sees significant problems in their housing market, they should be able to take steps to address it, especially if the issue involves discrimination. But once again, those aren’t the kind of Iowans Republicans are willing to stand up for in this state.

From the minimum wage to collective bargaining to CAFOs to fireworks to immigration enforcement, Iowa Republicans at the Statehouse have made clear they are the only voice that matters in Iowa government at any level. They are more than willing to preempt any local decision made in the state.

Their repeated actions show there is little “small government” ideology left in this Republican Party. All they care about is protecting certain people in Iowa, and it probably isn’t you.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 2/21/20

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