Housing discrimination report points to need for legislation
STATE HOUSE – A regional housing nonprofit released a report this week that found rampant discrimination against Rhode Island housing voucher recipients, and urged the adoption of legislation sponsored by Sen. Harold M. Metts and Rep. Anastasia P. Williams to prevent it.
A study by Southcoast Fair Housing found that although Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) recipients can afford more than one-third of listed apartments statewide, they are ultimately rejected from 93 percent. Over 9,300 households in Rhode Island rely on HCV to afford housing.
The organization uncovered what it described as “systemic online discrimination against voucher recipients” during the course of its research. When its researchers reached out to local housing providers by phone, 63 percent refused to rent to any tenant with a voucher. Another 11 percent expressed uncertainty.
Senator Metts and Representative Williams have proposed bills to prohibit housing discrimination based on source of income discrimination.
“Housing vouchers and other public assistance programs help Rhode Island families to keep a roof over their heads, particularly as rents rise,” said Representative Williams (D-Dist. 9, Providence). “Every one of us has needed a helping hand at some point, and folks should not face discrimination on that basis. This legislation is very much needed.”
“I was in high school when there were sit-ins against housing discrimination in the 1960s. How disappointing it is that this discrimination still exists in 2019,” said Senator Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence). “We must make discrimination-free housing a civil right. Rhode Island should not be divided into haves and have-nots, with certain families stigmatized just because of the type of assistance they receive. That dynamic weakens and segregates our communities.”
The legislation (2019-H 5137) adds “lawful source of income” to the list of statuses — such as race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and marital status — that landlords may not use as a basis for their decisions about to whom they will rent, or which units they will rent to them. The bill would not apply to owner-occupied dwellings of three units or less.
The bill includes language that would still allow landlords to ask whether a prospective tenants is at least 18 years old, and allow them to check a prospective tenant’s income, its source and its expected duration only for the purpose of confirming the renter’s ability to pay rent.
The bill defines “lawful sources of income” as “income or other assistance derived from Social Security; Supplemental Security Income; any other federal, state or local general public assistance, including medical assistance; any federal, state or local housing assistance, including Section 8 Housing …, and any other rental assistance; child support; or alimony.”
In addition to protecting tenants from being refused housing based on their income, the bill protects them from other unlawful housing practices, including segregation.
The House bill is cosponsored by House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick), Rep. Camille F.J. Vella-Wilkinson (D-Dist. 21, Warwick), Rep. Jean Philippe Barros (D-Dist. 59, Pawtucket), and Rep. Jason Knight (D-Dist. 67, Barrington, Warren). Senator Metts plans to introduce the bill soon in the Senate, which approved identical legislation last year.
The HomesRI Income Discrimination Coalition, a diverse group of local organizations and community stakeholders, supports the legislation, as does Gov. Gina M. Raimondo. Fourteen states now prohibit discrimination against lawful sources of income, but the practice remains legal in Rhode Island.
Southcoast Fair Housing’s report, titled, “‘It’s About the Voucher’ Source of Income Discrimination in Rhode Island,” is available online here.
“Our findings are alarming. Source of income discrimination hurts vulnerable tenants, and it’s happening in Rhode Island every day,” said Claudia Wack, the legal fellow who authored the report.
Kristina da Fonseca, SCFH’s Executive Director, hopes that the report will contribute to discussions around how to improve Rhode Island’s civil rights laws.
“Income discrimination is a fair housing issue,” said da Fonseca. “It limits housing choice, reduces access to opportunity, and perpetuates concentrated poverty. That has to change.”
SCFH’s research came together with help from local housing advocates and students from Brown University. Volunteers from the student advocacy group Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE) helped to collect statewide data, while members of “Mapping the Housing Crisis in Providence,” an Urban Studies Department Independent Study Project, contributed to research design and analysis at all stages.
For more information, contact:
Meredyth R. Whitty, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903