Over the past couple of decades, Austin’s population has grown enormously. This has forced many city residents to engage in the ever-frustrating sport of house hunting. However, it seems that most Austin residents are eventually able to find a desirable living space — excluding, unfortunately, those with housing vouchers.
To provide a little context, the Housing Authority of the City of Austin provides housing vouchers, funded by the federal government under the “Section 8 Program,” to residents who earn less than 50 percent of Austin’s median income. These vouchers are meant to help lower-income residents pay for rent without overwhelming them financially. Because of this, residents with vouchers are supposed to have a greater choice of places to live. The Housing Authority’s own website boasts that it helps 5,100 families a month afford safer and better housing.
At least, this is how it’s supposed to work. Regrettably, many homeowners and rental apartment complexes have refused to accept vouchers. Therefore, even those who had received vouchers were forced to stay in the same lower-income areas from which they had hoped to escape. Due to many landlords’ refusal to rent to tenants using vouchers, the program was ineffective in preventing concentrations of poverty in Austin.
Last April, there was an apparent breakthrough when the Austin City Council decided that landlords couldn’t discriminate against potential tenants on the basis of whether or not they use housing vouchers. The ordinance was passed in December, but U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled to temporarily stop enforcement of it in early January after the Austin Apartments Association challenged it in court. A hearing Jan. 26 allowed supporters and opponents of the ordinance to present evidence and make their case. Sparks announced that he would decide in the next couple of weeks whether or not to order that the ordinance be stopped indefinitely.
Sparks, who was nominated to the bench by President George H. W. Bush, stated at the hearing that he was concerned that the ordinance was “an act of bullying” toward landlords. Sparks’ concern in this regard is misplaced. In fact, at least 12 states and 30 local jurisdictions have enacted provisions prohibiting landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their source of income, according to a 2014 Austin Chronicle article. Far from being bullying, the City Council’s action on this issue reflects sound and mainstream public policy aimed at integrating the less fortunate into the wider community.
The real problem in this matter is not the ordinance but the attitudes of landlords that made the ordinance necessary. According to a 2012 survey by the Austin Tenants Council, fewer than 10 percent of Austin landlords accepted Section 8 vouchers. Surely the refusal to accept Section 8 vouchers is based mostly on stereotypes that demonize lower-income families. It is an understatement to say that it is unfair to discriminate against families who want safer or more convenient housing simply based on their method of payment.
In general, the pattern of debate on this issue seems to be that liberals support the ordinance whereas conservatives wish to strike it down. Indeed, a conservative Republican state Senator, Charles Perry, recently introduced a bill in the Texas Senate that would prohibit local communities from enacting ordinances requiring landlords to lease to tenants who pay with housing vouchers. This stance by Perry is confusing. Housing vouchers are a way for poorer residents to afford better housing for themselves and their families. This also has the effect of providing them with more employment, educational and social opportunities throughout the city. If conservatives like Perry truly believed in empowering individuals instead of the government, they wouldn’t oppose measures like the Austin ordinance which seek to maximize the opportunities for low-income individuals and families to move up the economic ladder. We certainly don’t have all the answers, and there are undoubtedly legal nuances for Judge Sparks to navigate. However, it seems obvious to us that everyone deserves a chance to enjoy the opportunities Austin offers, not just “bullied” landlords.
Dolan is a journalism sophomore from Abilene. Follow Dolan on Twitter @mimimdolan.