Phoenix may consider ban on housing voucher discrimination to aid renters
A group of about 20 residents gathered outside Phoenix City Hall on Wednesday and called on elected leaders to follow in Tucson's footsteps and pass an ordinance banning landlords from discriminating against renters who use government assistance.
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and the City Council appear willing to do so and are awaiting word on the subject from Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes. Mayes is reconsidering a legal opinion her predecessor issued in December, shortly before leaving office, that declared Tucson's ordinance violates state law.
“Phoenix is closely following the passage of Tucson’s ordinance for fair housing," Gallego said in a statement to The Arizona Republic.
Gallego and seven council members sent a letter to Mayes on Jan. 27 that demonstrated an openness to adopting an ordinance like Tucson's.
"Allowing the denial of tenants based on their source of income goes against the fundamental civil right to fair housing," the elected leaders wrote.
The letter, which was signed by the entire council except Jim Waring, who represents District 2 in northeast Phoenix, supports Mayes' choice to revisit former Attorney General Mark Brnovich's decision and says, regardless, they believe Phoenix has the right to pass an ordinance like Tucson's because an attorney general's opinion is not legally binding.
"Not only is the Ordinance within the City’s authority, but it also addresses a problem all too common in housing discrimination. The practice of considering a source of income is often utilized to discriminate against renters who would use housing vouchers, as well as other sources of income such as Social Security disability, and foster family credits," the letter said.
Waring told The Republic he would be open to a renter protection ordinance but didn't sign onto the letter because he knew Mayes was already reconsidering the issue.
"I think it's safe to conclude she'll reach a different conclusion than her predecessor," Waring said.
Back-and-forth over Tucson ordinance
In September, the Tucson City Council passed an ordinance preventing landlords from refusing renters based on "source of income," including government housing vouchers, but was quickly forced to suspend it.
Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma, a Republican from Peoria, complained Tucson's ordinance violated state law, and Brnovich, also a Republican, agreed, deeming it unconstitutional.
Under state law, Brnovich's opinion threatened Tucson's share of state funding — about 30% of the city's general fund — unless Tucson repealed its ordinance.
Mayes, a Democrat, may take a different approach. In a letter to Toma on Jan. 19, she said she would revisit Brnovich's opinion.
Mayes could decide Tucson's ordinance does not violate state law, does violate state law or "may" violate state law.
If she finds a violation, state law requires her to direct the Arizona state treasurer to withhold Tucson's state revenue. If she decides it "may" violate state law, however, she would refer the case to the Arizona Supreme Court for resolution, said Richie Taylor, a spokesperson for the attorney general.
Mayes' decision to reconsider the ordinance's compliance with state law came days after Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin requested it.
Regardless of the decision Mayes makes, the Phoenix residents outside City Hall on Feb. 1 said they want the Phoenix City Council to pass an ordinance. They say it's needed to address rising rent prices.
Phoenix has the biggest housing voucher program in Arizona. It has a waitlist of more than 16,000 people. People on the list can wait three to five years for a voucher, and those who get one often have difficulty finding a home to rent because landlords turn them away. With a deadline of just a few months to secure housing, voucher recipients often miss their chance for stable housing.
Tremikus Muhammad of the Phoenix Local Organizing Committee said it was wrong for people without "traditional forms of income" to be denied housing.
"To live in a home is a human right. We shouldn't have to rally at City Hall," Muhammad said. The city, he said, builds and maintains structures but doesn't do the same for "human life."
Residents share stories of rent struggles
Before and during the council meeting on Wednesday, Phoenix residents from the group Unemployed Workers United and city workers from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and the Phoenix Convention Center shared stories of their struggles with renting.
The residents urged the council to pass a fair housing ordinance like Tucson's or other renter protections to combat the lack of affordable housing.
"I want you all to help my people. ... A fair housing ordinance, whatever we need to do for some help for vulnerable people, in any way possible," said Dana Burns of south Phoenix.
Burns, leader of Permanent Voice, an organization that helps residents in need of legal, housing and health services, said a fair housing ordinance would, in particular, help seniors who care for children.
Rochelle Woodson, a 50-year-old Phoenix resident with three kids, said she used to work three jobs and still didn't have enough money to save for retirement. It's "not fair to suffer just to have a roof," she said.
Woodson pointed to rental requirements that dictate potential renters must make multiple times the monthly rent to secure an apartment. The financial suffering, she said, was forcing her to question whether she should move back to Missouri to live with her mother.
Miesha Fish, a 44-year resident of Phoenix, said she waited more than three years for a housing voucher. While she waited, she would rent a hotel room for a few weeks until she ran out of money.
"I can't express the trauma," Fish said of her time on the street, which included extreme heat and frigid temperatures. She said her husband's ashes were stolen while she was experiencing homelessness. "We need to expand access to housing for people who are receiving public assistance. ... Do what you're here for. Protect the people of Phoenix."
Marisa Mata, 27, said rent hikes are displacing people.
"The biggest challenge is apathy. I'm here to remind us to care and to act. Protect our neighbors from housing discrimination and make housing justice a priority so we can afford to stay in our homes and keep our communities together. We need a mayor who stands with tenants and is opposed to greed," she said.
Sebastian Del Portillo, an organizer with Unemployed Workers United, told council members that if Tucson could do it, Phoenix had no excuse.
"We're going to continue to come to City Hall" until the council acts, he said.
Phoenix residents have voiced a need for more affordable housing and stronger tenant rights. I fully agree.
Thank you to @MayorGallego & 6 councilmembers who signed our letter to @AZAGMayes to reconsider a challenge to Tucson's right to prohibit source of income discrimination. pic.twitter.com/73tlpuBasv
— Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari (@District7PHX) February 1, 2023
Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari tweeted her support of the residents: "Phoenix residents have voiced a need for more affordable housing and stronger tenant rights. I fully agree."
Gallego said the council "is looking at all possible solutions to provide attainable housing opportunities. This will take all hands on deck. I look forward to creating a policy that meets the guidance of our Attorney General’s Office.”
Reach reporter Taylor Seely at email@example.com or on Twitter @taylorseely95.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix may consider ban on housing voucher discrimination