Under proposed law, Kansas City would require landlords to accept rental vouchers

Another landlord-tenant battle is brewing in Kansas City over an issue that the landlords won last time around.

Now four years later, the citywide tenant union KC Tenants is taking another run with the support of Mayor Quinton Lucas at getting an ordinance passed that would prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to people based solely on an applicant’s credit history, prior evictions, criminal background or source of income.

The city council stripped a similar provision from the Tenants Bill of Rights that KC Tenants was successful in getting approved four years ago. In passing the bill or rights, the council agreed that renters should be guaranteed a decent place to live with protections against discrimination or recrimination when tenants complain.

But the council sided with landlords who claimed it would have been unfair for the city to require them to participate in government housing assistance voucher programs like the federal Section 8 program, if they didn’t want to put up with the red tape.

Nor should they be forced to rent to people who might not be able to pay their bills on time or had that in the history, the landlord groups said.

But now KC Tenants is trying again, hoping that the new council elected last summer will pass an ordinance introduced Thursday that not only prohibits landlords from taking into consideration a potential renter’s source of income, or screening out tenants based solely on measures of their financial stability or past history as a renter.

The ordinance would impose a $1,000 penalty for each violation. Repeat offenders would be required to take and pay for courses on how to comply with the ordinance, among other requirements.

Among the six co-sponsors is Lucas, who was instrumental in getting the Tenants Bill of Rights passed in December 2019 by removing that provision from the legislation during the contentious, two-month process to get the rest of it passed.

The other co-sponsors are council members Andrea Bough, Johnathan Duncan, Eric Bunch, Darrell Curls and Ryana Parks-Shaw. It will take only one more vote from the other seven council members to pass the ordinance, but it is sure to come in for a lot of scrutiny before it gets to that final vote.

First stop will be the Dec. 12 meeting of the council’s special committee for legal review, which Lucas chairs. Bough and Melissa Robinson are the other members.

“The ordinance banning source of income discrimination is very basic common sense, saying that if you lawfully obtain income, it doesn’t matter how you should pay your rent,” Lucas said in a prepared statement in a news release sent out by KC Tenants. “It says very simply that you cannot be discriminated against when you are renting in Kansas City.”

A stricter ban on housing discrimination

According to KC Tenants, source-of-income discrimination disproportionately impacts Black people, especially Black women with children, who hold the largest share of housing vouchers in Missouri.

Low-income people who qualify for the federal Section 8 housing program are given vouchers worth varying amounts based on family income and the cost of rental units in the market that they can use to pay their rent. But not all landlords accept them, because of the red tape that comes with that federal guarantee that their rent will be paid.

Some landlords also shy away from tenants who have housing subsidies from non-profit agencies that are only good for a short time. Many landlords also will only rent to people who can prove they have a reliable source of income from a steady job. But many gig workers and people who get much of their income from tips find it hard to find rental housing.

“Source of income discrimination is a social justice issue,” KC Tenants said in a written statement released Thursday and signed by 30 other organizations, ranging from churches and neighborhood associations, to a wide range of advocacy groups and the Service Employees International Union Local 1.

“Many renters affected by (source of income) discrimination have been disproportionately renters of color, women, and people with disabilities.”

KC Tenants says that more than 120 jurisdictions have passed source-of-income laws, including Lawrence, St. Louis, Denver, Des Moines, Iowa, and Los Angeles.

“Everyone should have the right to safe and stable housing, and where someone gets their income should not jeopardize that safety and stability,” the letter said.

According to KC Tenants’ summary of the proposed ordinance, landlords could not discriminate against potential tenants based on source of income from any occupation, profession, or activity, nor their use of use of public programs, including but not limited to Section 8, to pay the rent.

“Landlords cannot discriminate against tenants solely based on credit score, prior evictions, alleged damages, convictions or arrests. They must consider tenants’ entire application when screening them,” it said.

Kill the housing market?

The mayor’s office says the summary fairly reflects the new provisions in the 19-page ordinance that would amend chapters in the city code governing civil rights and health and sanitation.

But leaders of two local landlord associations told The Star that the proposed ordinance will have the opposite effect of increasing housing options for the people it’s meant to protect. The ordinance will instead, they say, convince the mom-and-pop landlords they represent to get out of the rental business, selling their houses and apartments to individual homeowners or big, out-of-state companies that own thousands of rental units and would likely raise rents.

“This will kill the affordable housing market in our city,” said Stacey Johnson-Cosby, president of the Kansas City Regional Housing Alliance. “And the worst thing you can do is try to force somebody to deal with the federal government, and they don’t want to, and they’ll leave, they’ll leave the market.”

Robert Long, president of Kansas City-based Landlords Inc., agreed and said the restrictions on screening applicants takes discretion away from landlords, who want to ensure they will rent to tenants who will take care of the property and pay their rent.

“We got source of income taken out the last time around. But we knew it’d come back,” he said. “It’s like talking to the wall.”

Both said they first learned of the proposed ordinance this week, although it has been in the works since August when Lucas listed it among a long list of goals in his inaugural address.

“I just found out about it Tuesday night,” Johnson-Cosby said on Thursday afternoon. “So yesterday was my first full day working on it. So what we’re doing is reaching out to council members to make sure they realize what this says. And then I’m also reaching out to my peers to alert them that this is happening.”