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Phoenix passes ordinance to ban income source discrimination in housing

Despite some legal uncertainty, Phoenix leaders have approved an ordinance meant to ban housing discrimination based on a person’s source of income. “Source” encompasses a wide range — from paychecks to child support to pensions, but the focus during Wednesday's City Council meeting was on preventing discrimination against residents who get public assistance.

That includes things like  Section 8 housing vouchers for low-income residents, Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income for people with disabilities.

“I am a disabled senior citizen,” said Catherine Wilkins as she leaned against a podium and addressed the mayor and eight council members. “I was almost homeless, and I mean homeless if it wasn’t for my daughter — that’s her standing behind me right now.”

Yovanda Wilkins’ hands supported her mother’s body. Her words support her spirit.

“My mother was in law enforcement, she was a case manager for Value Options, she worked as a correctional officer at Adobe Mountain, she’s put in her time. And for my mom to have to come to me and tell me that she can no longer afford to live on her own and she reaches out to me to help her, it becomes a pride issue,” Yovanda Wilkins said. 

While rising rents are an issue for many income levels, Phoenix’s most financially vulnerable face more scrutiny — and rejection from landlords who don’t want to deal with someone receiving public aid, someone like Catherine Wilkins who recently visited an area near downtown called "The Zone," where a thousand people live in tents.

She closed with this message to the council: “And that could be me. That could be somebody in your family." 

“Miss Wilkins, I see you,” said Councilwoman Betty Guardado. “I see you, I see my mom in you, and I definitely understand.”

Guardado joined council members Carlos Garcia and Laura Pastor to get the ordinance on the agenda for a vote.

“We got elected to bring everyone together, to build a city that works for everyone, not just one part of our city,” Guardado said.

"We got elected to bring everyone together, to build a city that works for everyone, not just one part of our city." — Councilwoman Betty Guardado

It was a rare meeting to hear conservative Councilman Sal DiCiccio aligned with progressive members.

“It’s a type of institutionalized racism, which people know I don’t use the race card. I just do not use it unless I believe it's true,” he said.

DiCiccio, who represents Ahwatukee and parts of east and central Phoenix, said he’s seen it in his own neighborhood — people wanting to keep others out.

“And I was shocked by it, I mean just-extremely bothered by it. I mean I live in a mixed household myself and feel very strong about it. Diversity does improve your community, it just does,” he said.

"Diversity does improve your community, it just does." — Councilman Sal DiCiccio

“Low-income Phoenicians should not have to wait three to five years on a Section 8 wait list only to be turned away from using that very voucher,” said Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari.

She said more than 15,000 households are on a waiting list for Section 8 vouchers. Under the program, a voucher holder pays 30% of housing costs while the federal government covers the rest. But often, landlords refuse to accept vouchers or reject applicants who list public assistance as their source of income. 

Resident Brianna Westbrook told the council that banning income discrimination will change many lives, “This legislation helps those living with disabilities, veterans, young adults, children aging out of the foster system, and many people in my community living with HIV and AIDS. It gives them an opportunity to succeed. Stable housing is important for the success and mental well-being of all of our community members.”

"Stable housing is important for the success and mental well-being of all of our community members." — Brianna Westbrook, resident

Phoenix’s ordinance mirrors a Tucson ordinance that says a person selling or renting a home cannot discriminate against someone based on their income source — the same way they can’t discriminate based on gender, race or disability. But Tucson’s ordinance was put on hold after Rep. Ben Toma  complained it violated state law.

In December, then-Attorney General Mark Brnovich agreed and cited a 1992 state law that gave certain cities and towns the power to enact local fair housing ordinances. However, Brnovich stated, “that statute and several others said local fair housing ordinances had to be passed ‘no later than Jan. 1, 1995.'" Brnovich's successor, Kris Mayes, is now reviewing the matter.

Phoenix’s ordinance will not take effect for 30 days — maybe longer, depending on the AG’s decision. But the message from Phoenix leaders was clear: since the pandemic, the city has budgeted about $150 million to add shelters and services for unhoused people, offer rent and utility assistance to residents, along with financial incentives to landlords and developers to support low-income housing. Leaders think they’re doing the right thing and they expect the same from the private sector. 

If Attorney General Mayes reverses her predecessor’s action and the Phoenix ordinance takes effect, complaints can be filed with the city’s Equal Opportunity Department, which will investigate. If a person discriminates against a buyer or renter based on their source of income, the person may be fined a minimum of $300 and a maximum of $2,500 for a first offense with fines increasing for second and third violations. Failure to comply with any order for a violation will bring additional penalties ranging from $300 to $2,500 daily.

DiCiccio was the sole vote against the ordinance because the language included protection for buyers and renters. DiCiccio said he told the Phoenix Realtors Association he would only vote for the ordinance if "buyer" was eliminated. 

The realtors group sent an opposition letter to council members saying, “Some of the sources of income included in the definition cannot be accepted as income to qualify for a loan under Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and FHA program requirements, such as loans, Section 8 housing vouchers, rental assistance and other housing subsidy programs.”

Federal law, which applies to the loan programs listed in the group’s letter, takes precedence over a city ordinance.

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.