Thursday, April 24, 2014
N.H. Senate committee hears testimony on housing discrimination bill
At least half a dozen landlords spoke yesterday in opposition to a bill that would prohibit them from turning away tenants solely because they receive federal Section 8 housing subsidies or are victims of domestic violence.
“Every landlord I’ve spoke to does not have an issue with the people receiving Section 8; they’re having a problem with the program,” said Nick Norman, director of legislative affairs for the Rental Property Owners Association. “This Legislature is trying to solve the issue of the Section 8 program by ramming it down the throats of landlords.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the bill for more than two hours yesterday, with much of it coming from landlords who are against it. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Patrick Long, a Manchester Democrat, passed the House earlier this session. Supporters of the bill said that people who receive housing subsidies and victims of domestic violence often have a hard time finding landlords who will rent to them in areas where they feel safe. But landlords said accepting tenants who pay with federal subsidies would subject them to enormous burdens because the program is overregulated. “Mom and pop” landlords who own only a few units would be hit particularly hard, they said.
Section 8 housing subsidies are available through the federal government to help low-income families pay for housing. Landlords are not required to accept them as payment. Landlords who do accept the subsidies must sign a 12-page Housing Assistance Payment Contract that subjects them to certain restrictions. If market prices go down, for example, the amount of subsidy money the government will pay goes down too, even if landlords don’t want to lower their rent.
Many of the landlords echoed Norman’s point that they have a problem with the voucher program, not the people benefiting from it. But supporters of the bill questioned that yesterday. Maggie Fogarty, associate director of the New Hampshire Program for American Friends Service Committee, said opponents of the law have been painting people who receive housing subsidies as a separate class.
“This program is helping thousands of people across the state,” she said. “Its importance as a tool for preventing and ending homelessness can’t be overstated, but its effectiveness is limited by the discrimination that some landlords are enacting.”
Dan Feltes, director of the Housing Justice Program at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, provided lawmakers with maps that show rental properties that accept the subsidies are often crowded together.
On the provision to prohibit discrimination against victims of domestic violence, landlords said they have to keep the safety of their other tenants in mind. Mike Keeler of the New Hampshire Association of Realtors said the law could create a “moral dilemma” for some landlords. If someone is renting an apartment in the same building where their children or grandchildren sleep, he said, they may not want to rent to someone who is the victim of stalking or domestic violence, which may lead someone violent to the home. One landlord suggested amending the bill to prohibit discrimination only against people with active protective orders against their abusers.
But Feltes and others said the concerns raised by landlords were overblown. For example, a landlord could still decline to accept Section 8 housing subsidies if the contract would require them to do repairs above and beyond local housing standards, Feltes said. Furthermore, state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, a Portsmouth Democrat, offered an amendment to the bill that would exempt small landlords from the law. Feltes also said tenants who receive the subsidies have no incentive to break their leases, because they will lose the vouchers if they do so.
Paul Stewart, a Bedford-based landlord, got up to speak in favor of the bill. His company rents roughly 400 apartments to people who qualify for housing subsidies. The voucher program has become a popular government program, he said, in part because it relies on the private sector, uses the existing housing market and gives tenants the freedom to choose where they want to live. Landlords, he said, benefit from the consistency in rent.
“Much of the concerns about the program that have been expressed here today, at least in my experience, have not materialized at all,” he said.
Once the committee makes a recommendation, the bill will go to the full Senate floor.