HUD may sue Iowa if bill allowing landlords to discriminate against federal housing aid recipients is signed into law


The Iowa Senate passed a bill allowing landlords to discriminate against anyone receiving federal housing assistance on Wednesday. The Senate had previously passed the bill on a party-line vote, but Republicans in the Iowa House amended SF 252 (formerly SSB 1079) when it passed the bill on Monday, so the Senate had to approve the amended bill, which has now been sent to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk.

Only Republicans voted in favor of SF 252 as it progressed through the legislature.

The House amendment did not carve out exceptions for veterans relying on housing vouchers from the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs or for people with disabilities. Democrats in the House proposed amendments that would have provided those exemptions, but the Republican majority rejected them.

The amendment the Republicans added just delays the date the law would take effect until Jan. 1, 2023.

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

Currently, Iowa City, Marion and Des Moines prohibit landlords from using federal housing vouchers as the reason for refusing to rent to a prospective tenant. The bill, if the governor signs it into law, would strike down those existing regulations.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom said during the discussion of the bill in the Senate on Wednesday that SF 252 is just the latest example of the Republican-led legislature eliminating the established powers of local governments.

“This is really the latest anti-democracy effort by the Senate Republican autocrats,” the Iowa City Democrat said. “This bill takes away local control.”

Since taking control of both chambers of the Iowa Legislature in 2017, 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 first bill passed by the legislature preempted the ability of local school boards to determine how to respond to COVID-19 conditions in their communities, and required all public schools to provide 100 percent in-person instruction to any student whose parents want it, even if local public health agencies determined that returning students to the classroom full-time may increase the spread of the virus.

Republican backers of the bill in both the House and Senate claimed this legislation was needed to spare landlords from “extra paperwork” or meeting any of the minimum standards the federal government might require.

“We have some landlords that just simply would rather not have to get involved with the extra paperwork or inspections or changes to their apartments or whatever else might come around because of that,” Rep. Dave Deyoe, a Republican from Nevada, said in support of the bill on Monday. “I think it’s important that we do allow them the freedom.”

During the discussion in the Senate on Wednesday, Sen. Jackie Smith, a Democrat from Sioux City, pointed out that Gov. Reynolds had listed increasing affordable housing as one of her top priorities for this legislative session.

“Why on earth would we cut off one avenue for affordable housing?” Smith said. “Why are we making laws that hurt veterans, the disabled, the elderly, poor families with children? Why are we using the strong arm of state government to take decision-making away from local elected officials?”

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.

When the House was considering the bill on Monday, Democratic Rep. Abo Abdul-Samad of Des Moines asked for the Legislative Services Agency to produce a minority impact statement on the bill before the House voted on it. The agency routinely prepares such statements. The House Republicans rejected the request.

The governor has not publicly commented on the bill, but Marcia Fudge, the former Ohio Congressperson who is now the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, did in an interview with Joy Reid on MSNBC shortly after SF 252 passed the Senate.

“Well, let me just say this, Joy: as a lawyer, I know that fair housing is the law,” Fudge said when asked her opinion of the bill. After some general comments about discriminatory practices in renting, the secretary concluded, “You cannot house people when they are purposely making it more difficult for people to find housing. It is a violation of the law.”

Asked if this meant the Biden administration might take legal action if the governor signs SF 252 into law, Fudge replied, “It would certainly be my recommendation that we do it.”

“But it is a discussion I would need to have with the Department of Justice, but I would clearly believe that we are within our rights to demand that these communities cooperate with what we are doing.”