From the Field: Utah Advocates Defend Protections against Source of Income Discrimination, Achieve other Victories

When the 2016 General Session of the Utah State Legislature concluded on March 10, housing advocates were elated to have successfully blocked legislation that sought to overturn housing discrimination protections based on source of income. Other key legislative victories included a commitment of new state funds to fight homelessness, the passage of a Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) measure, and changes to Medicaid that will benefit both chronically homeless persons and recently released prisoners. A robust coalition of community organizations that included the Utah Housing Coalition (UHC), an NLIHC State Coalition Partner, won these victories with strong data, effective messaging, and active organizing.

Senator Margaret Dayton (R) introduced Senate Bill 175 (S.B. 175) that would have modified the Utah Far Housing Act to provide that a landlord’s refusal to participate in federal voucher programs will not constitute wrongful discrimination. The legislation specified that rental payments from a local Public Housing Agency (PHA) through the Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) program would no longer be considered as income, thereby allowing landlords to adopt “no Section 8” policies for their buildings. Ms. Dayton formulated her proposal with the assistance of the Utah Apartment Association, which insisted that the passage of the bill would leave more than ample housing supply for the state’s approximately 11,000 voucher holders. During the legislative hearing on S.B. 175, supporters argued that very few landlords would actually cease to accept vouchers, and the bill was primarily about choice. Landlords expressed concerns about PHAs being difficult to work with on matters such as inspections and repairs and expressed concerns about cumbersome paperwork requirements for federal programs.

Advocates worked to defeat S.B. 175 before the legislative session began, producing a sign-on letter with more than 40 organizations expressing strong opposition. The letter represented a broad coalition, including the Crossroads Urban Center, the Coalition of Religious Communities, the Anti-Hunger Action Committee, and the Utah Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO). Prominent mayors indicated that they would lobby Governor Gary Hebert (R) to veto the legislation if it passed. Opponents organized a press conference on March 6, at which representatives from the Housing Authority of Salt Lake used data to refute many of the assertions made by the Utah Apartment Association. Advocates rebutted the argument that source of income protection was unnecessary by sharing data with the media on the negative impacts of Section 8 discrimination in states where no protections exist. Shortly after advocates launched their data-driven media campaign, the State Senate indicated it would not move forward with consideration of S.B. 175.

In other progress, the passage of House Bill 436 establishes the “Homeless to Housing Reform Restricted Account” with $7 million in state funds, $4.5 million of which is to be an ongoing source of revenue. Funds in the account will be used for grants to house or shelter Utah’s homeless population in accordance with priorities established by the state’s Homeless Coordinating Committee.

House Bill 431 requires all Utah public transit districts to develop policies to incorporate housing affordable to households with incomes at 60% of area median income. Transit districts can choose to develop policies with even deeper income targeting than the state-mandated 60% threshold.

Low income adults in Utah will also see additional healthcare benefits due to Medicaid expansions through the Affordable Care Act. The legislature passed House Bill 437, which contains numerous provisions to broaden Medicaid services, including new systems to ensure coverage for adults being released from prison.

Advocates look to build on this successful legislative session. Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox (R) is convening an Affordable Housing Task Force to be comprised of government officials, community advocates, developers, and lenders. The Task Force is set to meet throughout 2016 to create a statewide plan to address affordable housing. UHC will be an active member of the Task Force.

“This legislative session has us feeling good about the direction of affordable housing policy in Utah,” said Tara Rollins, Executive Director at UHC. “I am grateful for the shared experience of similar coalitions in other states who were able to provide key data and suggestions to help us protect our ban on source of income discrimination.”

For more information about housing advocacy efforts in Utah, contact Tara Rollins at [email protected]