On November 19, 2019 Representatives Wittenberg (D-Huntington Woods) and Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) announced two bills that would protect renters from discrimination based on their source of income.

IMAGINE THIS

You lost your job a few years back. It wasn’t the perfect job, but it paid the bills. Well, it barely paid the bills, but it was better than nothing. Then, without any warning, you were laid off. You had enough saved to cover rent for a month or two, but that ran out quickly. You found another job but it pays less, barely minimum wage. As a result, you’ve spent the last few years living in hotels, your car, and the local shelter.

Then you hear the magic words: you’re name was pulled for a Housing Choice Voucher. You were on the waiting list for so long, but now you have the resources you desperately need to get back on your feet. With this voucher, you can finally afford rent for an apartment close to your work. You will have to set aside 30% of your income for housing, but the voucher covers the rest.

Now you begin your search and for the first time in so long you are feeling optimistic about the future. You find the perfect place – it’s clean and in a good neighborhood and you can actually afford it with the voucher. You meet with the landlord and everything is going really well. Then they ask about your income and you tell them you have a voucher.

“I’m sorry, we don’t accept vouchers.”

You explain that it’s as good as money. It will come in every month, so you can guarantee that they’ll get paid on time and the check won’t bounce. And you’re a really good tenant! Before you lost your job you never had any issues with paying your rent or causing any problems.

But they don’t budge. Their policy is to not accept income that comes from any form of assistance. And that’s it. You hear the same thing at the next two places. Then, on the last day you have to find a place or lose the voucher, you finally get an apartment. But it’s in on the other side of town, in a high crime neighborhood, and not in the best condition.

All that hope you felt when you received your voucher is gone.

SOURCE OF INCOME PROTECTIONS

We wish this was just fiction. Or even a rare occurrence. In Michigan this happens all too often, and currently there are no statewide protections against this discrimination.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

It is estimated that in Michigan over 55,000 households receive Housing Choice Vouchers, formerly called Section 8. This supports only 25% of the households who are eligible for this assistance. Only a handful of communities have ordinances that prevent a landlord from rejecting an application based solely on their source of income. And Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act doesn’t include source of income in its protections.

That could all change soon though. On November 19, 2019, Representatives Robert Wittenberg (D-Huntington Woods) and Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) announced two pieces of legislation that would protect tenants from source of income discrimination.

Rep. Rabhi’s bill amends the 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include source of income protections. This would allow the Michigan Department of Civil Rights the authority to investigate reports of discrimination and empower local Fair Housing Centers to pursue litigation on behalf of tenants.

Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act

Accompanying this bill, Rep. Wittenberg’s proposal amends the 1972 Landlord and Tenant Relations Act. Landlords would be required to consider all legal sources of income in their calculations to determine if a tenant meets their income threshold. Enforcement would rest with the local jurisdiction rather than the state.

In both bills, source of income is defined as benefits or subsidy programs including housing assistance, public assistance, emergency rental assistance, veterans benefits, social security, supplemental security income or other retirement programs, and other programs administered by any federal, state, local, or nonprofit entity. It does not include an income acquired via illegal means.

If Michigan were to pass either proposed bill, it would become the 12th state to provide such protections for low-income renters. In communities where source of income protections exist and are enforced, the denial rate for voucher holders dropped from 77% to only 35%. This would dramatically increase the likelihood for someone with a voucher or other form of public assistance to find a home that they can afford and is appropriate and safe.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

For the past year MCAH has been working with our partners at Community Housing Network to see this legislation introduced. We believe that it will not only improve the success rate for individuals looking to lease homes with their vouchers, but it will also provide individuals and families with the ability to seek housing in areas that better meet their needs. As more high-income neighborhoods have the ability to reject applicants based solely on their income source, Michiganders are limited to communities that lack employment, resources, educational opportunities, and more.

We know there is a long road ahead of us before source of income protections are passed in Michigan, and we need your help. Here’s how you can support these two bills:

  • Call your state representative and ask them to co-sponsor Reps. Wittenberg’s and Rabhi’s bills before they are introduced in the legislature in early December;
  • If you are a landlord, or work with landlords, fill out our landlord survey and pledge support to source of income protections;
  • If you have personally encountered discrimination based on your source of income, let us know! Email Laurel at lburchfield@mihomeless.org and we’ll help you create testimony to be shared with state legislators and decision makers; and
  • Join our annual Legislative Action Committee which meets monthly. We’ll keep you updated on what you can do to be involved.

IMAGINE THIS

You received a voucher last month and met with three different landlords for properties that fit within your budget and checked all the boxes for your needs. They all accepted you and you had the opportunity to choose the home that you liked best. You now live in a home that you love and have the security of knowing that you don’t have to worry about affording rent.

All of this is because in Michigan we believe that folks are more than their income and should have the ability to find safe, affordable housing regardless of where their legal income comes from.

By Laurel Burchfield, MCAH Manager of Marketing, Growth, and Development. You can contact her at: lburchfield@mihomeless.org.