Marion should maintain housing discrimination high ground

There are economic advantages to keeping municipal ordinances aligned throughout a metropolitan area, but such benefits should never outweigh protections against discrimination.

Area landlords, speaking during a public comment period at the March 3 Marion City Council meeting, advocated for eliminating a piece of the rules governing the community’s relatively new Civil Rights Commission. It’s a battle the same landlords fought and won five years ago in Cedar Rapids, and it appears that past success is a key reason for wanting changes to the four-year-old Marion rules.

Garry Grimm, a Cedar Rapids resident and landlord in both Cedar Rapids and Marion, told council members that there’s a difference in how he promotes properties and screens prospective tenants in the two communities.

“For Cedar Rapids properties, if they call and ask if I accept Section 8, I can say no. It’s a 30-second phone call,” he said. “In Marion, if the same person calls, I can’t say that.”

Lettering on the brick facade of Marion City Hall in Marion, Iowa.Because Marion Code includes a phrase, “lawful source of income,” as a protected class in its discrimination standards, Grimm says he cannot automatically exclude those with government subsidies from applying as tenants for his Marion properties. In Cedar Rapids, this specific type of discrimination is legal, although civil rights leaders rallied against it.

Another Marion landlord, Linda Miller, said her issue with the phrase is “because tenants that qualify for lawful source of income are Section 8 tenants,” which are individuals who receive “a Section 8 benefit, which is not a wage.”

“If a tenant has an income, it shouldn’t just be a benefit that can’t be garnished or anything,” she said. “Right now, the way it is, when I advertise an apartment, I have to say I have to accept Section 8 if they qualify for it. There’s no way I can come back on them for anything that happens in that apartment.”

The phrase “lawful source of income” appears 16 times in Chapter 31 of the Marion Code, which was approved by Council in 2012 when the city grew large enough to require its own Civil Rights Commission. It first appears as part of the organization’s declaration of purpose:

“To secure for all individuals within the City freedom from discrimination because of age, color, creed, disability, familial status, gender identity, lawful source of income, including housing subsidies and vouchers, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation in connection with employment, public accommodations, housing, credit and education; and thereby to protect the personal dignity of these individuals, to ensure their full productive capacities, to preserve the public safety, health and general welfare, and to promote the interests, rights, and privileges of individuals within the City.”

It’s later defined as any lawful and verifiable source of money paid directly or indirectly to or on behalf of a prospective renter or purchaser including W-2 wages, government assistance, private assistance, gifts, grants, loans, inheritance, pensions, alimony and child support. No landlords appearing before the Marion Council voiced concerns about pension holders or Social Security recipients.

Marion’s language is similar to what’s been adopted in other states and communities throughout the nation — most recently by Iowa City officials. Other cities around the region without the protected class are debating if they should include it. In Dubuque, for instance, a task force is expected to present recommendations at the end of the year.

Also speaking before the council, Marion Civil Rights Commission Chairman Steve Moshier said he believed this renewed regional interest was at least partly to blame for scrutiny of Marion’s language.

An email circulated through the Landlords of Linn County trade association supports his assertion.

The message was signed by Miller, a member who serves on association subcommittees, and was addressed to all members.

“I was concerned because I had overheard that LSI (lawful source of income) proponents in other cities had been stating that Marion already approved LSI, therefore, it should be approved in other cities,” Miller wrote.

According to the email, Miller and two Cedar Rapids members, Bob Mitchell and Sheryl Jahnel, met a week before the scheduled Marion meeting with three council members — Kim Etzel, Joe Spinks and Will Brandt.

“After speaking with the council members and Pro Tem Mayor it was agreed that the wording ‘lawful source of income’ should be dropped from Chapter 31. The remainder of the chapter would stay the same. We were told to bring people to support removing the words ‘lawful source of income’ from Chapter 31 to the Marion City Council meeting on Thursday, March 3, 2016,” Miller wrote, adding that members supporting rewording of the code should “still push to have LSI removed” so the onus could be placed on civil rights advocates to drive any reinstatement process.

Moshier told council members that the Civil Rights Commission is willing to sit down with landlords to determine specific complaints.

“Hopefully that can be considered before the protection is simply struck completely from the books,” he said.

Mayor Nick AbouAssaly was hesitant to call a vote on the unscheduled public comments.

“Obviously we need to look at the ordinance so we can know what people are talking about,” he said. “From what I heard, the language doesn’t require you to rent to someone, but prohibits discrimination based on that criteria.”

Marion Code makes it even more clear: “A housing provider … shall not be required to rent or sell to any participant in a housing subsidy program merely because the individual has the subsidy.”

Landlords can deny prospective Section 8 tenants in the same way they deny other prospective tenants — criminal history, credit checks, past performance, references, etc. In Marion and Iowa City the law does not allow a specific type of renter to be stereotyped and blackballed out of the market or into only specific areas of the city.

That’s a good thing — something that Cedar Rapids, not Marion, needs to rethink.

It encourages lower-income residents to be more widely distributed throughout the community, creating more diversity and opportunity for all. School districts that serve Marion have a better chance of achieving economic equity within schools, something that’s been shown to enhance student achievement and break persistent cycles of poverty. It discourages the development of high-poverty areas that too often overburden local resources.

Requiring landlords to simply consider Section 8 tenants won’t magically make more affluent communities like Marion more affordable, but it will challenge pervasive assumptions that keep individuals from high poverty areas from obtaining the employment and resources necessary to relocate to a better environment.

Marion officials would not tolerate an employer automatically disqualifying potential employees that live in certain apartment complexes. They shouldn’t tolerate landlords who want to automatically disqualify potential tenants based on the source of their rent check.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on March 13, 2016.