Statement of Michelle D. Thomas, Chief, Civil Rights Section, Office of the Attorney General
Before the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, Anita Bonds, Chairperson
Public Hearing on “B23-0528 – Rental Housing Source of Income Amendment Act of 2019”
February 20, 2020
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, District of Columbia 20004
Greetings Chairperson Bonds, Councilmembers, staff, and residents of the District of Columbia. My name is Michelle Danielle Thomas, and I have the privilege to serve as the Chief of the Civil Rights Section in the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) for the District of Columbia. I am pleased to appear before the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization on behalf of Attorney General Karl A. Racine to testify in support of Bill 23-528, the “Rental Housing Source of Income Amendment Act of 2019.” This legislation establishes that rental housing assistance provided by the District government to an owner of a housing accommodation shall be considered the income of the tenant for the purposes of any minimum income qualification requirements. This important legislation helps combat housing discrimination in the District by creating more transparency for low-income renters seeking access to housing, and foreclosing a common discriminatory tactic used by some landlords to deny housing to the District’s most vulnerable residents. This bill, combined with the expansive provisions of the District’s Human Rights Act, helps to ensure that housing is available to all District residents, regardless of their source of income.
Let me begin by discussing the work of OAG’s Civil Rights Section and our efforts to fight housing discrimination in the District. I will then discuss three of the bill’s provisions that are particularly useful in stopping discrimination against people who use housing assistance to pay their rent.
The Attorney General’s Fight Against Housing Discrimination
The Civil Rights Section of the Office of the Attorney General actively works to combat all forms of discrimination by enforcing the District’s Human Rights Act (HRA). The HRA prohibits discrimination in housing, public accommodations, employment, and education based on 21 protected traits. These include traits protected by federal law, such as race, sex, and disability, and includes additional protected traits like sexual orientation, marital status, and source of income. District law is thus more protective of vulnerable residents than federal law and more protective than most other states’ laws. Despite these broad civil rights protections, District residents are hurting.
An Urban Institute study of District-area housing opportunities found that 15 percent of landlords simply refuse to rent to people attempting to pay for housing with Section 8 vouchers. That’s illegal. This practice has the added effect of reinforcing racial segregation in housing, as more than 90 percent of voucher holders are African American. Our office has prioritized fighting housing discrimination against people who use vouchers or other forms of rental assistance—the very type of discrimination at issue in this bill.
Housing vouchers are essential supports for low-income residents navigating the District’s high cost of living, and discrimination against people who use vouchers illegally blocks access to safe and affordable homes. That’s especially true in the District, where almost a quarter of the District’s tenant households spend 50% or more of their monthly income on rent. Indeed, last year, in a series of community listening sessions with residents from all eight Wards of the District, our office learned that access to affordable housing, free from discrimination, was District residents’ number one civil rights concern.
In response to the findings from our listening sessions, the Office of the Attorney General brought numerous lawsuits under the Human Rights Act against landlords who refuse to rent to people with vouchers, and against others who post ads telling voucher users they are not welcome. Last week we settled a case with a housing provider who owned and managed nearly 250 rental units east of the River. This entity posted multiple discriminatory advertisements stating that it would not accept vouchers and other forms of housing subsidies as rental payments. We investigated and confirmed that the entity did not accept vouchers, filed suit, and obtained a preliminary injunction halting the illegal practices. In settlement of the case, the housing provider will pay $900,000 to the District and provide anti-discrimination training to its employees.
We have two additional source-of-income cases pending in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. In one case, we allege that a housing provider in Capitol Hill broke the law by using an online scheduling platform for apartment viewings that would not let prospective tenants schedule showings if they planned to use vouchers to pay their rent. In another, we allege that a major housing provider in Wards 1, 2 and 3 illegally charged voucher holders fees and costs that it did not charge other tenants.
In addition to our litigation efforts, we’ve also partnered with Zillow and Apartments.com—two leading online housing platforms—to filter out illegal housing ads before they are posted. Nonetheless, discriminatory postings continue to appear on other websites, and we continue to hear from residents who are turned away from apartments because they plan to pay with a housing voucher. So, although the Human Right Act has for decades outlawed discrimination against people who use rental assistance, we know that source-of-income discrimination continues, and we welcome this bill’s changes to further strengthen our laws.
Due to the large scope of this problem, the Attorney General also respectfully requests a minor amendment to clarify that when OAG initiates a discrimination lawsuit, restitution will go to the harmed residents and penalties will be deposited in our Litigation Support Fund. Litigating against large property companies is difficult, and we need all the resources we can get to combat this challenge. To be clear, the amendment we seek will not have a fiscal impact or require any additional funding.
This Legislation Strengthens Anti-Discrimination Protections for Low-Income Housing Applicants
This legislation makes three key changes that I’d like to discuss. It ensures that minimum income requirements are not a barrier for tenants who use housing vouchers, it clarifies that District-funded rental assistance is a protected source of income under the Human Rights Act, and it requires affirmative nondiscrimination statements in housing advertisements.
First, the legislation makes clear that when a landlord calculates a potential tenant’s income, housing vouchers and rental assistance count towards any minimum income requirement the landlord may impose. This is important because income requirements often shut people out of homes that they otherwise could afford with a voucher. Traditionally, landlords have imposed minimum income requirements as a way to guarantee that potential tenants can afford the full cost of rent. But when a tenant uses a housing voucher, the District deposits the bulk of the monthly rent payment directly to the landlord’s bank account. This means that traditional income requirements don’t make sense for voucher holders.
All too often, landlords use income requirements to exclude voucher holders entirely. OAG and partner organizations have seen landlords set income requirements so high that nobody who qualifies for housing assistance would meet those income thresholds. For instance, one woman who received housing assistance was told that to be approved for an apartment, she would need to earn three times the monthly rent. That came out to more than $21,000 a month or $250,000 a year. No one earns that much and still qualifies for housing assistance.
Instead, by placing guardrails on the income calculation process, this law ensures that landlords do not veer off course into discriminatory territory when it comes to source of income. I think of this provision somewhat analogously to the Fair Criminal Record Screening Amendment for Housing Act (FCRSHA) that the Council passed in 2016. Both this bill and the FCRSHA guarantee that landlords treat tenants fairly and offer housing applicants transparency about what factors can and cannot be considered in determining their qualifications for a particular unit. Under this legislation, more applicants who use housing vouchers will know they are qualified for more housing units than ever before.
Second, this legislation explicitly states that District-funded rental housing assistance is a protected source of income under the Human Rights Act. This clarifying provision improves the District’s legal code by updating our statutes to reflect the current state of the law. In recent years, judicial rulings and administrative guidance have made clear that all rental housing assistance, whether it comes from the federal government or the District government, is a protected source of income under the Human Rights Act. This bill brings our District’s statutes in line with that understanding, reminding District residents and landlords that it is illegal to discriminate against people who use any kind of government assistance to pay their rent.
Third, this bill requires landlords to clearly state in their advertisements that they will not refuse to rent to tenants who use vouchers or other forms of rental housing assistance. This provision is a much-needed antidote to the numerous discriminatory housing ads that our office and community partners come across on an almost daily basis. In 2017 alone, the Equal Rights Center found more than 120 advertisements that contained language suggesting that a District housing provider discriminated based on a potential tenant’s source of income. Discriminatory ads like these create permanent barriers in the rental market each day they are visible. Unlike temporary notices such as “no one-bedroom units available,” warnings like “no vouchers accepted” send a lasting message to people who use housing assistance and permanently discourage them from pursuing housing opportunities at all buildings advertised in that manner.
Requiring landlords to affirmatively state in their advertisements that they will not refuse to rent to people who use housing vouchers rolls out the welcome mat instead. This affirmative requirement serves two educational purposes. First, it reminds landlords of their legal obligations to treat rental assistance as a valid form of payment. And second, it signals to people who participate in housing assistance programs that they should not—and in fact cannot—be denied a home simply because they plan to use a voucher to pay their rent. The positive effects of this provision cannot be understated in reiterating and reaffirming the rights of low-income tenants who are searching for a safe place to live.
I want to thank this Committee for setting this hearing on this important bill, and I appreciate the opportunity to testify. We at the Office of the Attorney General are thrilled that the Council continues to strengthen protections for people seeking housing in the District and we are committed to vigorously enforcing our city’s laws to make the District a place where all people can live, learn, work, and play without fear of illegal discrimination. The provisions of the Rental Housing Source of Income Amendment Act of 2019 will put us in an even better position to eradicate discrimination in our city. I am happy to answer any questions that members may have.
 Tom Acitelli, Nearly half of D.C.-area renter households ‘cost-burdened,’ report says, Curbed (Oct. 15, 2019), https://dc.curbed.com/2019/10/15/20915332/dc-renter-households-burdened.
 Community Voices: Perspectives on Civil Rights in the District of Columbia 4 (2019) https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2019-11/Civil-Rights-Report.pdf.
 Whitney Wild, Erin Spaht, John Mogor, Advocates to DC landlords: Stop telling Section 8 voucher holders ‘No’, WUSA9, Sept. 18, 2018, https://www.wusa9.com/article/news/investigations/advocates-to-dc-landlords-stop-telling-section-8-voucher-holders-no/65-595848115.
 Equal Rights Center, The Equal Rights Center Annual Report 2018 6 (2018), https://equalrightscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/6.20.19-annual-report-2018-final.pdf.