Bill that would allow landlords to refuse to rent to people on federal assistance approved by Iowa Senate subcommittee

For rent sign — photo courtesy

A bill advancing through the Iowa Senate would strike down ordinances in Iowa City, Marion and Des Moines that prevent landlords from discriminating against people who receive federal housing assistance.

SSB 1079 would strip all local governments in the state of the power to enact or enforce ordinances that prohibit landlords from rejecting potential renters just because they will use a federal housing choice voucher, often referred to as Section 8 vouchers, to help pay their rent. Only three cities in Iowa currently have such ordinances.

Marion adopted its ordinance in 2000, Iowa City amended its Human Rights Ordinance to include the prohibition in 2016 and Des Moines did so in 2019.

“I think ultimately this is the right thing to do because it levels the playing field for all people looking for rental units in Iowa City,” Iowa City Housing Authority Administrator Steve Rackis said when the city council approved the prohibition in 2016. “In the past, people with a voucher were being treated differently just because they had a voucher, and now they’re going to have to be given the same consideration as anybody else, which is the fair and right thing for people to do.”

A 2019 study by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that in Iowa approximately 71,000 people in 43,000 households relied a federal rental assistance. Fifty-five percent of those people are in households with children, 21 percent are senior citizens and 26 percent of them have disabilities.

People who rely on federal housing assistance vouchers often have difficulty finding places that will accept them as tenants. Many studies over the years have found landlords will use a refusal to accept vouchers as a pretext to engage in racially discriminatory behavior that would otherwise be illegal.

Speaking on behalf of Iowa City and Des Moines at Senate subcommittee hearing on the bill, lobbyist Doug Struyk pointed out the anti-discrimination ordinances do not require landlords to rent to anyone receiving federal assistance.

“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 told the three members of the subcommittee on Tuesday. The ordinances just prohibit landlords from rejecting potential tenants because they receive federal aid through the voucher program.

But according to Jake Ketzner, a lobbyist who addressed the subcommittee on behalf of Iowa City-based Greylake Partnership, that is still an intolerable overreach on the part of the three city governments.

“There are landlords that have no problem participating in the program and they will be able to continue to do so,” Ketzner, who served as Gov. Kim Reynolds’ chief of staff before becoming a lobbyist, said. “There are also landlords that do not want to be forced into business with the federal government, and they’re simply seeking to make this program a voluntary basis again.”

Representing the Greater Iowa Apartment Association, Michael Triplett said the ordinances in Iowa City, Marion and Des Moines “unduly burden” landlords. He said the cities should instead offer landlords incentives to rent to people who use federal housing assistance.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach of Ames, the lone Democrat on the subcommittee, questioned Triplett about whether discriminating against people because they rely on federal assistance to pay rent could effectively be a way to allow landlords to discriminate against people of color.

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

“We disagree with that statement,” Triplett replied.

The bill passed 2-1. Both Republicans, Julian Garrett of Indianola and Mark Lofgren of Muscatine, voted in favor of it. Quirmbach opposed it. The bill now goes to the Senate Local Government Committee.

Since taking control of both chambers of the legislature in 2017, Iowa Republicans have routinely introduced bills that would preempt the authority of local governments to do things they find ideologically objectionable. Some of those bills have become law.

Perhaps the best-known example of Iowa Republicans preempting local control came in 2017, when they pushed through a bill eliminating the authority of local governments to set their own minimum wages, after Johnson, Linn, Polk and Wapello counties passed ordinances raising the minimum wage for workers in their counties.

The Republican majority’s willingness to override local control was on display last week, when the House and Senate fast-tracked a bill requiring all public schools to provide 100 percent in-person instruction to any student whose parents want it, even if local school boards or public health agencies believe returning students to the classroom fulltime may increase the spread of COVID-19 in their community.

Gov. Reynolds signed that bill into law on Friday.

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