Texas Legislature Bans Local Ordinances Protecting Voucher Holders from Discrimination

On May 28, the Texas Senate voted to approve SB 267, a bill to ban local governments from establishing ordinances that protect Housing Choice Voucher holders from rental housing discrimination. This version of SB 267 incorporates amendments made by the Texas House of Representatives specifically targeting voucher holders. SB 267 now heads to Governor Greg Abbott (R) for approval.  A coalition of advocates in Austin and from around the state opposed the bill, including NLIHC board member Isabelle Headrick with Accessible Housing Austin, Karen Paup and John Henneberger with the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, and Ken Martin with the Texas Homeless Network. Texas Low Income Housing Information Services and Texas Homeless Network are both NLIHC State Coalition Partners.  

Senator Charles Perry (R) introduced SB 267 in response to an ordinance passed unanimously by the Austin City Council on December 11, 2014. The Austin ordinance amends the city’s Housing Discrimination Ordinance by adding “Source of Income” as a protected class. The City of Austin took this action after a 2012 study conducted by the Austin Tenants’ Council titled “Voucher Holders Need Not Apply” revealed that voucher holders were steadily being concentrated in fewer neighborhoods. The study, which included 600 buildings with 139,919 market rate rental units, found that 56% (78,217) of the rental homes surveyed met the rent guidelines for a Housing Choice Voucher, but only 6% had landlords willing to potentially accept a voucher holder. In Austin, 90% of Housing Choice Voucher holders are people of color, and 24% have disabilities.

Senator Kirk Watson (D), who represents Austin in the Texas Senate, successfully amended the Senate version of SB 267 to include a “grandfather clause” exempting the City of Austin from the state law. However, the House version of the bill removed this exemption provision and the Senate approved the version without the exemption. All Texas cities, including Austin, will be subject to the prohibition if the Governor signs the bill into law.

The House version of SB 267 leaves little doubt that this bill applies narrowly to Housing Choice Vouchers. The original version would have prevented any local ordinances providing protection from discrimination based on lawful source of income. The House version now specifically states that the only banned ordinances are those that protect renters whose lawful source of income “includes funding from a federal housing program.”

An additional amendment states that veterans can be protected by local ordinances, meaning Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) voucher holders can be added as a protected class under fair housing law. SB 267 also includes a provision that explicitly allows local governments to continue programs that provide incentives for landlords who voluntarily accept renters with Housing Choice Vouchers.

“We’re frustrated that the Texas Legislature is interfering in local efforts to protect low income people from discrimination,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. “Local fair housing laws like source of income protection help low income families, particularly families of color, find decent homes near good schools and good jobs. The Legislature should not be making that harder to do.”

“As someone who has leased properties to voucher holders for twelve years, I have found that Section 8 and other voucher programs make my job substantially easier, not harder,” said Isabelle Headrick, director of Accessible Housing Austin. “It saddens me that the Texas Apartment Association used so many scare tactics to influence legislators when these are actually very well-run programs that put money into my organization’s bank account like clockwork every month and allow me to serve tenants who are very stable and stay for years.”

More information, contact Will Livesley-O’Neill at the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, at [email protected]