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Bill Advancing In Iowa Senate Would Allow Rental Discrimination Based On Housing Vouchers

A bill advanced by Republicans on an Iowa Senate subcommittee would allow landlords to reject potential tenants based on their use of federal housing choice vouchers.

A bill advanced by Republicans on an Iowa Senate subcommittee Tuesday would allow landlords to reject potential tenants based on their use of federal housing choice vouchers.

Three cities—Des Moines, Iowa City and Marion—have ordinances that ban landlords from using an applicant’s receipt of a Section 8 federal housing choice voucher as the reason for denying them a place to live.

This bill—which was also considered during the 2020 legislative session—would invalidate those local ordinances and prevent other cities from enacting similar policies.

Lobbyists representing landlords said they want to be able to choose whether they accept vouchers.

“It was only when some cities decided they would put their hand on the scale that we felt that this unduly burdened certain landlords in our association,” said Michael Triplett, a lobbyist for the Greater Iowa Apartment Association.

This form of federal housing assistance allows low-income Americans to choose a place to live. The federal government covers part of the rent payment, and then a local public housing agency administers the funding and enters a contract with the landlord in addition to the lease. Landlords must maintain safety and health standards.

Doug Struyk, lobbying on behalf of the City of Des Moines and the City of Iowa City, said the ordinances don’t force someone to rent to a person with a voucher—that just can’t be the reason for rejecting them.

“So if you have somebody who doesn’t pass your criminal background check, who can’t provide the deposit, or who’s had a bad rental experience that doesn’t meet you requirements for rental history, you don’t have to rent to that person,” Struyk said.

Chris Johansen, who administers housing vouchers in Polk County, said the average income of families receiving this assistance is $12,319.

“Fifty-one percent of our households that we provide assistance to are disabled,” Johansen said. “Twenty-one percent are elderly. There’s 37 percent that are households that have children.”

Johansen added 20 percent of those who receive vouchers still cannot find housing. And he said inspection standards for the housing voucher program are less stringent than the Des Moines city code.

Nationally, people of color are disproportionately represented in the housing voucher program. Some landlords have been found to use vouchers as a pretext for racial discrimination in renting, according to a report from Time Magazine.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, asked Triplett about that.

“When you discriminate on the basis of income, and income is tied with race, aren’t you effectively discriminating on the basis of race?” he asked.

“We disagree with that statement,” Triplett said.

“Well, okay then,” Quirmbach said. “We’re going to disagree.”

Housing discrimination based on race, age, disability, and other protected characteristics is illegal.

Sens. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola and Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine, voted to advance the bill to the full Senate Local Government Committee. Quirmbach voted against the bill.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter