City officials, mindful of Austin’s status as one of the most economically segregated major metro areas in the country, have been trying for years to shift one factor that determines where poor people live. And now they want to press the issue in court.
Austin this week sued the state of Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott over a 2015 law that prevents cities from requiring landlords to accept federal housing vouchers, a method of payment used by thousands of low-income households in Austin.
That state law quashed a 2014 Austin ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on applicants’ “source of income,” or the way they plan to pay their rent.
The practical impact of the state law, city officials argue, is that poorer residents are turned away from rentals in more affluent areas that could offer better opportunities.
“Without the ability to protect people from this type of discrimination, the Legislature is basically locking in racial segregation in our city,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. He said his organization “wholeheartedly applauds the city’s actions” in filing this lawsuit.
A 2012 report from the nonprofit Austin Tenants’ Council showed the majority of Travis County landlords didn’t accept the housing vouchers. The units that accept vouchers are concentrated in Northeast, East and Southeast Austin, the report found.
Austin attorneys write that the denial of housing to voucher holders in “higher opportunity neighborhoods,” with better schools and lower crime rates, leads to segregation.
“The segregation of (housing choice voucher) holders to lower opportunity neighborhoods disproportionately impacts African-American and Hispanic residents, children, and disabled individuals,” the complaint states.
The city’s suit, filed Tuesday in federal District Court, says the law violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution by infringing on Congress’ goal of fair housing choice for low-income people.
Paul Cauduro, the Austin Apartment Association’s director of government relations, said its members don’t discriminate against tenants based on source of income but “simply make a business decision not to participate” in the voucher program.
Cauduro said the reluctance stems from complications and inefficiencies in the program.
“Our association is pressing for more changes at the federal level that will make the (program) more efficient and effective,” he said, “and we will continue working with local area governments to keep the housing industry free from unnecessary taxes, regulations and fees impacting rent.”
The Austin Apartment Association, representing rental property owners and operators, sued the city in 2014 over its housing ordinance, saying it forced landlords to participate in the Section 8 housing voucher program.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled in favor of the city in 2015, but a few days later, the association appealed. The issue became moot in June 2015 when state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 267 prohibiting such ordinances. The association dropped the suit.
State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who authored the law that Austin challenged in court this week, said he was disappointed by the city’s decision to sue.
“Their energy would be better spent incentivizing even more rental properties to participate in affordable housing programs,” Perry said. “The city should not be in the business of forcing private businesses to participate in a heavily regulated federal program that was meant to be voluntary.”
Regardless of landlords’ reasons, however, the effects of not honoring housing vouchers is a form of housing discrimination, Henneberger said. He added that, under the city’s ordinance, landlords could still screen applicants for other criteria such as credit history, landlord references or criminal background.
In urging the City Council last month to vote for filing the lawsuit, Council Member Greg Casar pointed to the city’s strategic housing blueprint, which states that the “lack of affordable housing citywide exacerbates segregation created through historical policies and practices.”
“Our working families and seniors should have the option and the freedom to live in neighborhoods with great schools, public transportation options, and access to healthy food,” Casar said in a statement. “No neighborhood should be walled off entirely by unaffordability.”
By the numbers
5,800: Number of housing choice vouchers administered by the Austin housing authority in 2014, the most recent year that detailed figures are available
15,200: People in the households served by those vouchers
7,765: Children served by those vouchers
3,578: People with disabilities served by those vouchers
997: Seniors served by those vouchers
$14,000: Average household income of voucher recipients
5 years: Typical wait time for an applicant to receive a housing voucher
Source: City of Austin