116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - Officials in Iowa City and Marion are denouncing as mean-spirited, cruel and discriminatory a bill awaiting a decision from Gov. Kim Reynolds that would strip their ability to force landlords to accept federal housing vouchers from renters.
If signed in to law, Senate File 252 would prevent counties and cities from adopting or enforcing measures that prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to someone using a federal housing choice voucher, such as Section 8 voucher.
If signed into law, the measure would become effective right way. But existing ordinances prohibiting a landlord from discriminating against a 'source of income” - like are on the books now in Iowa City and Marion - would not be repealed until January 2023.
Rep. Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada, who managed SF 252 on the Iowa House floor, said during the chamber's March 15 debate that the bill was meant to keep the Section 8 program 'voluntary” - for both renters and landlords.
'There's landlords out there that specialize in Section 8 housing and they want to do that,” he said. ' ... Some landlords, you know, like to deal with that because essentially they're getting some checks that don't bounce.”
But there are landlords, he said, who don't want to deal with paperwork, inspections and building upgrades that may be required.
Under an amendment that Deyoe proposed, existing ordinances in the few Iowa cities that have them wouldn't be wiped off the books for about two years to allow for a transition so renters in those communities wouldn't be of risk of losing homes right away.
Nonetheless, such a law would be discrimination, critics said.
'There are two ways policy can be discriminatory: in its face or in its impact,” said Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn. 'This policy does not pass either test. ...
This is a direct assault on Section 8. I look at it and say, ‘What's next?' Other disability benefits? Veteran benefits? Any time you include the term, ‘those people,' in the equation, it's discrimination.”
According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 19,000 Iowans receive federal aid under the program. About a third of the people in the program are racial or ethnic minorities, the figures show. Of the families receiving the aid, about 29 percent report someone in the household with a disability.
According to lobbyist declarations, both the Iowa Apartment Association and the Iowa Landlord Association support the bill. Cities across Iowa, as well as the ACLU of Iowa, the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the NAACP and others oppose the bill.
'We are going to be requesting a veto from the governor,” said Rachel Killburg, assistant to Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin.
Killburg said if the bill becomes law, the city would have little recourse beyond educating landlords on the benefits of the federal program.
Christine Ralston, director of Development for Shelter House, said the bill wouldn't just impact low-income Iowans but veterans and others.
'This bill takes away the rights of local municipalities to protect their people,” said Ralston. 'Beyond that … something like this is never really justifiable from our point of view.”
Ralston said Shelter House uses housing vouchers and its network of landlords as part of its rapid rehousing program to help find permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness. She said the measure would make their work more difficult.
Chris Villhauer, president of the Greater Iowa City Apartment Association, said the bill has not been widely discussed by the members.
'No one is against the housing choice voucher program,” Villhauer said. 'I think it's a good program for what it's intended to do.”
But Villhauer disagrees with the notion that the program guarantees money for landlords. Villhauer said if tenants in the voucher program violate its terms, they could lose their housing. But the landlords have little recourse to recoup the losses, he said.
'Does it happen a lot? No,” he said. 'But it does happen.”
Marion Civil Rights Commission member Bret Nilles, who also is chair of the Linn County Democrats, said he's been disappointed to see this bill passed by both the GOP-controlled House and Senate.
'It really feels like a mean-spirited attack on low-income, people with disabilities, veterans and minorities,” Nilles said. 'To take this action that is going to really impact some individuals' freedoms and rights and the ability to rent decent housing, this is really taking protection away from people.”
Nilles said he's tried to reach out to Republican legislators, including House Speaker Pat Grassley, to try and explain the bill's impact.
But he's had no luck.
'That's the frustrating part. … We have a rural state with a lot of Republicans in rural cities that don't have various groups that we have in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Des Moines,” Nilles said. 'That's why I've been trying to call around and explain this. All we can do is reach out to legislators and try to inform them, but if they don't respond, there's not much we're able to do.”
Iowa City Council member Janice Weiner said the state's focus now should be on helping Iowans emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, 'not deciding how best to hurt them.”
'I don't believe there's anything to be gained by legalizing discrimination,” she said.
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