'Fair Housing' bill gets council's OK

Posted 12/23/20

By DANIEL KITTREDGE An ordinance that would bar a tenant's source of income as a deciding factor for landlords in Cranston received the City Council's backing last week. The measure, formally titled "Fair Housing Practices," was approved on a 5-3 vote

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'Fair Housing' bill gets council's OK


An ordinance that would bar a tenant’s source of income as a deciding factor for landlords in Cranston received the City Council’s backing last week.

The measure, formally titled “Fair Housing Practices,” was approved on a 5-3 vote with one abstention.

It was sponsored by Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan, Ward 2 Councilwoman Aniece Germain, citywide Councilman Steve Stycos and Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas.

“This is a really small change that we can make here in Cranston that will have no fiscal impact on us, and that can really make a difference in people’s lives,” Donegan said during discussion of the ordinance during the council’s Dec. 17 meeting.

Council President Michael Farina, a Republican, joined the four sponsors, all Democrats, in the majority. Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins, Ward 5 Councilman Chris Paplauskas and Ward 6 Councilman Michael Favicchio were opposed, while Ward 4 Councilman Ed Brady abstained.

In an email Monday, Mayor Allan Fung said the ordinance had not yet reached his desk and that he had not determined whether he would sign or veto the legislation.

“I’ll take a look at it and will speak to the solicitor and my director of administration to help guide me in my decision,” he said.

Separately, the council unanimously approved another ordinance amendment sponsored by Donegan, Germain and Vargas to revive the city’s Affordable Housing Commission. That panel will be comprised of representatives from the city’s Housing Authority, Planning Department and Health Equity Zone, as well as five members of the public appointed by the council.

The ordinance amendment to create the commission cites an “acute shortage of affordable, accessible, safe, and sanitary housing” for Cranston residents, calling it “imperative that action is taken immediately” to address the issue.

Last week’s vote on the “Fair Housing Practices” proposal came after several continuances for the ordinance, which was initially introduced in September.

The proposal generated significant debate during a prior Ordinance Committee meeting in October, and also drew support from a number of residents and representatives of nonprofit organizations during the public comment section at the meeting.

The Ordinance Committee forwarded the measure to the full council without a recommendation on Dec. 10. That action was taken due to the late hour at which a hearing for another matter on that evening’s docket – the since-withdrawn zoning change for Cranston Crossing – was concluded.

Donegan said the proposal, based on a similar ordinance in Barrington, is meant to bridge a gap in existing state and federal law regarding housing discrimination. Its language includes protections that currently exist at higher levels of government – barring discrimination based on race, religion and gender, for example – while adding “lawful source of income,” which includes Section 8 housing vouchers, Social Security, veterans benefits and other public assistance.

“They can’t turn you away simply because of where your legal money comes from,” Donegan said of the ordinance’s intent. “And as we’ve heard, this does occur in Cranston.”

He added: “Imagine that you’re a single parent trying to find a new place to stay, and you’re turned away … simply because you’re going to put a security deposit down with the rental assistance program … Imagine being told no simply because of where your money comes from.”

Donegan also said he believes the ordinance will help alleviate the concentration of poverty in certain sections of the city.

Vargas noted that the General Assembly has taken up similar legislation in the past, and while it received the backing of the Senate, it stalled in the House of Representatives. Citing the economic pressures created by the pandemic, she said the measure would help ensure local families experiencing difficult circumstances can access affordable housing opportunities.

“This ordinance will help families here in Cranston … Housing should be a universal right,” she said, adding: “It is a huge, huge problem in our country, in our state, in our city.”

Stycos said in his view, the ordinance would “help change attitudes toward an important discrimination that needs to be wiped out.”

“We need to fight discrimination on income the same way discrimination on racism has been fought,” he said.

At the end of the discussion, Farina – indicated he expected his vote would surprise others on the council – expressed his support for the ordinance amendment.

He shared a personal story of experiencing housing instability at one point during his youth when the apartment building in which he lived with his father, who was on assistance, was sold.

“I fought homelessness at one point in my life,” he said, noting that the building’s new owner “didn’t want to hear the fact that we were on assistance, and he threw us out.”

Farina said because of that episode, he was forced to take time away from college to help support the family. Now a landlord himself, he said: “No landlord, and I am a landlord, should discriminate on source of income.”

Other council members raised concerns over the ordinance.

Favicchio, who was critical of the measure during the October meeting of the Ordinance Committee, reiterated his view that the “Fair Housing Practices” measure duplicates existing protections in state and federal law while creating a precarious enforcement mandate – and perhaps legal liability – for the city.

“We just don’t have the resources. There’s no need in trying to get involved in policing housing discrimination … I think it’s ill advised because I don’t think that we can enforce it,” he said.

Favicchio acknowledged affordable housing is an issue locally and statewide, and he said the creation of the new commission was a preferable means of pursuing the issue.

Hopkins said he agreed with the intent of the proposal, but he tied the issue to diversification of the city’s workforce, suggesting that should instead be the priority of local leaders.

“I don’t think we can change people’s habits until we change our own habits,” he said.

Brady applauded Donegan’s advocacy and called housing access an “incredibly important issue,” but he advocated for more time to research the issue.

“I do not feel comfortable voting tonight with the information I currently have,” he said.

Daniel Parrillo, Fung’s director of administration, echoed Favicchio’s concerns in terms of enforcement and creating an “additional burden” on the city’s inspections department were the ordinance amendment to become law.

“I think that’s going to be an issue for the city, who those duties would fall upon,” he said.

Municipal Court Chief Judge Matthew Smith, who addressed the council, seemed to suggest he views enforcement of the ordinance amendment as manageable. He said the court has increasingly utilized consent decrees to resolve disputes between tenants and landlords – a type of action that has proven “very effective” because the parties waive their right to appeal, creating an incentive for cooperation.

Describing himself as “old enough to remember the phrase, ‘No Irish need apply,’” Smith also said issues of discrimination “resonate with me personally.”

Several members of the public spoke in favor of the ordinance amendment on Dec. 17

Annette Bourne, research and policy director for HousingWorks RI, noted that Cranston is now the state’s second-largest city by population – growth that “suggests that we are a place where people want to raise families and enjoy community life.” That, she said, comes with a “responsibility” to help ensure equitable and affordable housing access.

Bourne added: “Permitting landlords to discriminate based on source of income stigmatizes those who already feel outside the mainstream.”

Amy Rainone, director of government relations for RIHousing, said the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated existing issues of income-based housing descrimination.

“We hear it all the time about people who have a voucher … but are unable to find a landlord who’s willing to accept it,” she said, adding: “Having a safe, stable place to live is so critical for public health.”

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