Council member proposes citywide ban on Section 8 discrimination

When searching for an apartment on Craigslist, it’s not uncommon to find a small notice at the bottom of the ad that reads: “No Section 8.”

City Council member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) is looking to end that restriction, so that all landlords must accept federal vouchers that subsidize rents. The proposed ordinance would prohibit discrimination based on receipt of public assistance.

“We know this is an issue impacting residents,” Glidden said. “Several states and cities around the country have this requirement. This is not something where we’re first trying it by ourselves.”

“We find that clients really do struggle to place their vouchers,” said Lael Robertson, supervising attorney at Legal Aid. “…There is no belief that landlords are intentionally discriminating or making choices with the intent to hurt people. It does close the door to people seeking opportunity and better schools.”

She pointed to a recent Metropolitan Council report mapping the placement of Section 8 vouchers. The map showed a concentration in North Minneapolis, she said, with smaller disbursements in the rest of the city.

Robertson said it’s hard to say how much housing would open up for Section 8 voucher holders in Southwest Minneapolis, given the higher price of rents there. There are limits on the rent rates available to voucher holders. But a 2009 Housing Link study showed that about one-third of affordable housing was not available because landlords chose not to participate in Section 8, she said.

“It would make a huge difference to our families,” Robertson said. “It’s one more hurdle they have to overcome to find stable, safe housing for their families.”

The new ordinance would prevent landlords from denying a unit to someone solely because they hold a voucher. They could still deny tenants based on bad credit or rental history.

Steve Frenz, president of The Apartment Shop, said he accepted Section 8 vouchers for about 20 years, and called it a “wonderful” program.

“We saw a lot of stability in it too,” he said. Tenants with vouchers stayed for years, he said.

Nevertheless, Frenz said he stopped accepting vouchers about two years ago.

“We started having dismal experiences with inspectors,” he said.

He said the federal program requires annual inspections and additional inspections every time a unit is leased. Coordination with federal inspectors became difficult and burdensome, he said.

Frenz said another drawback to Section 8 is it takes away the ability for landlords to terminate a lease without cause. He said the tool is particularly important in Minneapolis, where landlords are held accountable for activity in the building.

“Termination without cause is a valuable tool,” he said. “You’ve got to have a pretty tight rein.”

Dan Largen, operations and property manager at Mint Properties, said they work with other nonprofits offering rent subsidies, such as Lutheran Social Service and Catholic Charities. But they don’t take new Section 8 tenants, he said.

“We have 63 different buildings,” he said. “We need to know everybody is on the same plan, the same lease, the same rules,” he said. “It’s really hard to manage exceptions from one tenant to the next.”

HOME Line Managing Attorney Mike Vraa said more landlords were taking Section 8 vouchers back in 2002 and 2003, when the vacancy rate was higher and landlords wanted guaranteed rent payments.

“If a market is great for landlords, which it is right now, then Section 8 is something they don’t want to accept,” said Vraa.

Proponents of Section 8 say it’s a good deal for landlords, because they get a portion of rent payments regardless of a job loss.

“A tenant promising to pay rent isn’t as good as Uncle Sam promising to pay rent,” Vraa said. “I would love to see this passed, just to give people more choices. I don’t think it would be the end of the world for landlords.”

Glidden noted that “Section 8” has become a loaded phrase — prior to a confrontation between police and black youth at a swimming pool in McKinney, Texas, adults used “Section 8” as a derogatory term. Glidden also pointed to a recent Washington Post article explaining “How Section 8 became a racial slur.”

Glidden’s ordinance was introduced in June and it will be taken up by the city’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Emergency Management Committee.