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Iowa House passes bill allowing landlords to discriminate against people receiving federal housing assistance

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For rent sign — photo courtesy photos-public-domain.com

On Monday, the Iowa House of Representatives passed a bill already approved by the Senate, which would overturn ordinances in Iowa City, Marion and Des Moines that prevent landlords from discriminating against people who receive federal housing assistance. In addition to invalidating existing ordinances, SF 252 (formerly SSB 1079) would also prohibit any local government from protecting those who receive federal housing assistance from being automatically rejected by landlords.

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.

“The people who are most vulnerable are relying on us to make sure affordable housing is there for them,” Rep. Phyllis Thede, a Democrat from Bettendorf, said in opposition to the bill during the floor debate in the House on Monday.

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.

“It’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, or other characteristics, so with the passage of Senate File 252, landlords can now use housing vouchers as an excuse,” Democratic Rep. Bruce Hunter of Des Moines said.

Hunter’s fellow Des Moines Democrat Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad also pointed to the likely disproportionate impact the bill will have on members of minority groups, and cited an Iowa Finance Authority report from 2020 that found 30.9 percent of Black households and 39.6 percent of Pacific Islander households face severe housing problems (“which include cost burdens, overcrowding and inadequate plumbing and kitchen facilities”), compared to only 10.7 percent of white households.

Abdul-Samad asked for the Legislative Services Agency to produce a minority impact statement on the bill before the House voted on it.

“We know there is a serious problem with disparities when it comes to housing in our community … Without a minority impact statement, this [bill] could compound that disparity,” he said.

The Republican-led House did not request the impact statement, and the bill passed 56-38. Two Republicans, Rep. Garrett Gobble of Ankeny and Rep. Brent Siegrist of Council Bluffs, joined Democrats in voting against it. One Democrat, Rep. Bob Kressig of Cedar Falls, voted with the Republican majority.

According to Rep. Dave Deyoe, a Republican from Nevada and one of the bill’s advocates during Monday’s debate, he and his fellow Republicans backed the bill to spare landlords from having to deal with “extra paperwork” or other red tape that might come with accepting federal housing vouchers.

“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,” he said. “I think it’s important that we do allow them the freedom.”

Republicans in the Senate made similar arguments when they passed the bill.

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House Republicans made one alteration to SF 252. Instead of taking effect immediately, the House amended the bill so it would not take effect until 2023. The bill was sent back to the Senate, which is expected to approve the amendment. SF 252 would then go to Gov. Kim Reynolds for her signature.

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.

Marion adopted its ordinance banning discrimination against renters with vouchers 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.”


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