Editor’s Note: To find out what Section 8 is and why Section 8 renters were asked to vacate their apartment units, click here.
Michelle Dozier’s life is currently packed up in cardboard boxes and trash bags that cover her living room floor, except for a small pathway from the front door to the kitchen and to the balcony. Her three-bedroom Renton Woods apartment unit has been swept, mopped and cleaned, and is almost in the tip-top shape it was before she moved in three years ago.
But while Dozier is ready to move out of the apartment at a minute’s notice, she has no where to go.
Nearly 70 families in Renton — all receiving Section 8 vouchers — were in the same boat as Dozier last month when they were asked to vacate their apartment units. Low-income and disabled residents received the letter notifying them of their eviction earlier in September. Renton Woods residents were expected to vacate by the end of October, but were later given an extension till Nov. 30.
“It’s so messed up, especially since it’s around the holidays,” said Dozier, who lives with her 18-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter who is completing her last year at Secondary Learning Center.
But thanks to a new emergency ordinance prohibiting property managers from discriminating against residents who receive the vouchers passed Monday by the Renton City Council, she may not have to move at all. Residents took their case to the council Oct. 24, asking for the ordinance, which the city proposed and council passed after meeting with housing advocate to discuss the issue.
“When a group of tenants who participate in Section 8 housing came to us two weeks ago with the predicament that they were being displaced, we were very concerned about their challenges and we felt it was critical to address the issue right away,” Mayor Denis Law said in a press release. “We are very pleased that the Council passed the emergency ordinance that helps protect families under these circumstances.”
Taking effect immediately, the ordinance makes it illegal for any property owner, manager, landlord or agent to refuse to rent to a person solely on the fact the person plans to pay a portion of the rent using money from Section 8, which is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Landlords are also prohibited from refusing to allow required health and safety inspections by the public housing authority, and must now provide written notice to explain why the unit is ineligible.
It also establishes penalties for violating the ordinance, including fines of $1,000 for the first violation, $2,500 for the second with a two-year period and making a third violation in the same period a gross misdemeanor punishable by a jail sentence of 364 days and up to a $5,000 fine and restitution.
Renton Woods resident Toya Thomas was among those who appeared before the council to ask for their help. For Thomas, the panic of sudden eviction not only affected her, but also her kids.
“I tried to hide what it was doing to me, but all of my children were affected by it,” she said.
Thomas said that her 15-year-old daughter was especially traumatized by the experience. “She has social anxiety already, and all of this was a whole lot for her,” Thomas said. She also has a 25-year-old with special needs and a six year-old.
Many local organizations responded to the battle cry and partnered with the affected tenants, including Tenants Union of Washington, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, and All Home. Several residents are working with Northwest Justice Project, a publicly-funded legal aid program that provides assistance for low-income families.
Following the public outcry, Grammercy and Renton Woods apartments last week withdrew their termination notices for Section 8 recipients. This means that Dozier, Thomas and other residents will able to renew their leases and continue to remain in their units for the time being. The ordinance passed by the council should secure that through at least August, when the provisions are designed to sunset.
With the passing of the new ordinance, Renton joins the ranks of Seattle, Redmond and Kirkland in barring property owners and managers from discriminating against Section 8 participants.
During their discussion at Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, the council was presented with a few options on how to deal with the issue, but opted for the emergency ordinance that went into effect immediately as a way to prevent other landlords from adopting similar policies in the next 30 days.
The adopted ordinance opens with a series of “Whereas” recitals that state the problem and recognize the “unmitigated risks posed by income source discrimination constitute a public emergency,” especially to the city’s “vulnerable populations” as winter approaches.
The temporary ordinance also states that the state legislature is expected to take up this issue
“We heard passionate debate on both sides of the issue, at council meetings and via email,” Council President Randy Corman said in a press release. “These families are among Renton’s most vulnerable and it’s our duty to protect them. The ordinance gives us the ability to make sure they are treated fairly.”
“(On Monday), Renton lived up to its mission of being an inclusive city with opportunities for all,” agreed Councilmember Ed Prince. “I am proud of my council colleagues for passing this important piece of legislation.”
During the discussion, Prince cited the city’s mission of being inclusive and said the city must “live our values” and protect everyone, especially those on the lower end of the spectrum, something the other councilmembers echoed.
Representatives from the Tenant’s Union characterized the ordinance as a victory.
“This emergency ordinance is great news for tenants in Renton,” said Rachel Myers, executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. “As the state legislature turns its attention to the 2017 legislative session, banning source of income discrimination statewide should be a high priority.”
Many Section 8 recipients attended the council meeting on Monday, including Thomas and Dozier.
But the passing of the legislation hasn’t erased weeks worth of trauma, said Thomas.
“It is a victory for everybody,” she said. “I’m happy that it was done, but, we will never get back what we lost. My children experienced pain… my faith is restored in Renton, but it will never change what these people here did.”
Thomas said she had secured a new place in Kent as soon as she received her letter in September, and that she doens’t want to continue living at Renton Woods, a place that didn’t want her residing there.
“Why would I stay somewhere like this?” she asked, but added she is considering moving back to Renton in the future.
As for Dozier, she said she’s thrilled to hear the ordinance passing at the council meeting, but she’s still waiting to hear the official word from her case worker before she unpacks her things and reclaims her home.