In late October, the Dallas City Council debated an ordinance that would have forced landlords citywide to accept federal housing vouchers. But the discussion could never get beyond one insurmountable hurdle: a Texas law that prohibits cities from passing the very law Dallas was considering.
As council member Jennifer Staubach Gates said at the time, if the council voted in favor of the “source of income discrimination” ordinance — and, ultimately, it did not — “it’s going to go against state law and get tied up in courts.”
Four months later, that’s just where the state law finds itself.
At the end of last week, Inclusive Communities Project, a Dallas nonprofit concerned with fair housing, sued Gov. Greg Abbott, alleging that the state’s law is not only an unconstitutional violation of the Fair Housing Act but that it’s blatantly racist.
The Dallas Housing Authority administers more than 16,000 housing choice vouchers. According to ICP, 86 percent of the voucher-holders are black.
Says the lawsuit, which was filed in Dallas federal court: state law “explicitly permits multifamily landlords to deny housing to voucher families who can pay the rent, satisfy the tenant selection criteria, and for whom there are no legitimate business reasons not to accept as tenants. By permitting the multifamily landlords in white areas to discriminate solely on the basis of participation in the voucher program, the statute excludes the predominantly black voucher households from white areas.”
Abbott’s office has not yet responded to requests for comment.
Texas’ law isn’t even 2 years old. It stems from a legal tussle the Austin City Council’s December 2014 ordinance that forced apartments in that city to take anyone holding a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher. The council there took action after a 2012 study from the Austin Tenants’ Council revealed that out of 139,919 apartments units surveyed, just 8,590, or 6 percent, accepted vouchers. Most were concentrated in a few low-income, racially segregated parts of the city.
The ordinance didn’t survive a lawsuit — or the Texas Legislature.
Almost immediately after it was passed, the Austin Apartment Association sued the city, claiming that landlords should be able to decide who lives in their units. State Sen. Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock, then filed SB 267, which prohibited cities from passing laws like the one Austin’s council had approved.
The bill created a dust-up over whether Austin was trying to seize cities’ abilities to make their own rules, imperiling “local control.” But state Sen. Don Huffines, a Dallas Republican, made an impassioned plea in March 2015 on behalf of Perry’s bill, insisting that Austin’s voucher ordinance “trample[d] the liberties of the business community.”
“Tyranny from your neighbor or your local government or a dictator in a foreign country,” Huffines said, “is still tyranny.”
ICP President Demetria McCain said Monday that Huffines was vehemently against the Austin ordinance because he knew Dallas would be consider its own down the road. Dallas, after all, had no choice.
Months earlier, in November 2014, A.C. Gonzalez, then city manager, and Warren Ernst, then city attorney, cut a deal with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which had been investigating a discrimination complaint against the city. Rather than admit wrongdoing, Dallas City Hall cut a deal with HUD, which said, in part, Gonzalez and Ernst would “formally introduce …an ordinance prohibiting source of income discrimination, including discrimination against Housing Choice Voucher holders.”
But by the time council finally voted on the proposed ordinance last October, it was too late. The Legislature had already made it illegal for cities to tell landlords they needed to take voucher-holders.
“And when the state did what they did, it wasn’t simply about Austin,” McCain said. “It was already known HUD had suggested to the city they needed to consider a similar ordinance. … But there’s no way to go forward till we deal with this issue. The state’s in the the way. If that state law didn’t exist, Dallas would have an ordinance that is fully enforceable.”
Several council members urged their colleagues, and Mayor Mike Rawlings, to pass an ordinance requiring acceptance of vouchers and see how it shook out in court. Instead, the council passed a watered-down version that said developers who take city subsidies or zoning variances will be required to rent 10 percent of their units to people holding Section 8 vouchers.
“We had an opportunity to make a big leap,” North Oak Cliff’s council member, Scott Griggs, said after last October’s vote. “We didn’t.”