RHODE ISLAND SENATE

Senate approves bill to prohibit discrimination against
housing assistance recipients

STATE HOUSE — The Senate approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Harold M. Metts to prohibit housing discrimination against those who receive government assistance to pay their rent.

The legislation (2020-S 2134) adds “lawful source of income” to the list of statuses — such as race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and marital status —  that landlords may not use as a basis for their decisions about to whom they will rent, or which units they will rent to them. The bill would not apply to owner-occupied dwellings of three units or less.

The bill defines “lawful sources of income” as income or other assistance derived from Social Security; Supplemental Security Income; any other federal, state or local general public assistance, including medical or veterans assistance; any federal, state or local housing assistance, including Section 8 Housing; child support or alimony.

The bill is meant to address the challenges and discrimination that many housing assistance recipients face finding an apartment in Rhode Island. Here, unlike in Massachusetts, Connecticut and 12 other states plus Washington, D.C., landlords are allowed to refuse to rent to those receiving housing assistance. Some advertise “No Section 8,” and advocates say that stipulation is sometimes used as a pretext for discrimination against not only the poor, but also families with children, minorities and others.

“We must make discrimination-free housing a civil right. Rhode Island should not be divided into haves and have-nots, with certain families stigmatized just because of the type of assistance they receive. That dynamic weakens and segregates our communities,” said Senator Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence). “Needing housing assistance is not an indication that anyone is going to be a bad tenant. The vast majority of those receiving this assistance are families with children, often single mothers who are simply facing an uphill battle to afford the high cost of living in Rhode Island. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about that. Refusing to rent to them is just discrimination, and we should not sanction it as a state.”

In addition to protecting tenants from being refused housing based on their income, the bill protects them from other unlawful housing practices, including segregation.

The bill includes language that would still allow landlords to ask whether a prospective tenants is at least 18 years old, and allow them to check a prospective tenant’s income, its source and its expected duration only for the purpose of confirming the renter’s ability to pay rent.

The legislation, which has passed the Senate each year since 2017, now goes to the House, where Rep. Anastasia P. Williams (D-Dist. 9, Providence) plans to introduce a companion bill.

Cosponsors in the Senate include Sen. Frank A. Ciccone II (D-Dist. 7, Providence, North Providence), Sen. Ana B. Quezada (D-Dist. 2, Providence), Sen. Louis P. DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Tiverton, Little Compton, Newport) and Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, North Providence).

A study released last year by Southcoast Fair Housing found that although Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) recipients can afford more than one-third of listed apartments in Rhode Island, they are ultimately rejected from 93 percent. Over 9,300 households in Rhode Island rely on HCV to afford housing.