Hillsborough County continues to push for greater awareness of new tenant protections, more than one year out

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A "For Rent" sign is displayed along a neighborhood street (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The Hillsborough County Commission last year approved a ‘Tenant’s Bill of Rights’ ordinance that, among other things, contains a ban on what’s known as source of income discrimination.

This provision prohibits landlords and property owners from refusing to rent to a tenant based on how they plan to pay for their rent, as long as it comes from a lawful source of income.

But, according to the local housing authority — which distributes government-funded housing vouchers — and the county’s consumer protection department, there’s still a broad lack of public awareness about Hillsborough County’s new anti-discrimination policy, which officially went into effect last summer.

According to Consumer Protection Services, only 25 alleged violations of the county ordinance have been reported since enforcement began in July.

Of those, ten cases were referred to other agencies, two were found to be outside of the ordinance’s jurisdiction, two were deemed unfounded, one was already in litigation, and ten complaints were resolved through education or a warning.

Eric Olsen, administrative manager of Consumer Protection Services admitted, “I thought that there would be more complaints coming in than there have been.”

But, that doesn’t necessarily mean discrimination — which could mean anything from refusing to rent to someone who receives public assistance, advertising in listings that the property doesn’t accept “programs,” or falsely informing voucher holders that there’s no apartment availability — isn’t happening.

Unlike protected categories such as race and sex, source of income discrimination isn’t federally prohibited under housing discrimination law. Even in states and other municipalities that have enacted similar source of income laws, discrimination against voucher holders can still occur.

It’s an issue that commonly intersects with other forms of discrimination, like racism and ableism. According to the American Bar Association, SOI discrimination disproportionately affects renters of color, women, and people with disabilities, who are more likely to be recipients of government assistance to help cover at least some of their housing costs.

What local laws prohibiting this can help to do is reduce discrimination, and impose penalties for violations. In Hillsborough County, those who are found to violate the Tenant’s Bill of Rights ordinance can face a $500 fine for the first offense and any subsequent offenses.

But Olsen, with Consumer Protections Services, told WMNF this hasn’t happened yet. Each time the county receives a complaint, they open an investigative file and assign the case to an investigator. Olsen works with a team of four, but code enforcement — a separate department — also handles complaints.

Olsen said that so far, they’ve been able to reach a resolution on the few cases that have come their way without needing to impose a fine or fee. Sometimes it’s a matter of a communication issue, or a misunderstanding. But the goal is to get tenants into housing “as quickly as possible.”

“We want to be able to work with both parties to resolve any issue,” said Olsen. “So, if an issue comes up, a landlord is unaware of the ordinance, we’re going to work with them.”

At the same time, he admits there are some landlords who just aren’t interested in complying with the policy. “There are property owners out in the community who don’t want to accept public assistance as a lawful source of income, but the fact is, it is a lawful source of income,” said Olsen. “If we find that people are not willing to take that as a lawful source of income, they are in violation of the ordinance and they’ll be handled appropriately.”

Stigma and the struggle to find housing

With government programs like Section 8, also known as the Housing Choice Voucher (HVC) program, a voucher will only cover a portion of the recipient’s rent. Some landlords might view this as reassurance of reliable payments from the government, but stigma surrounding the HCV program is also an ongoing issue.

“There’s so much misinformation about the individuals that are on this program and other programs that I think that could be improved,” Margaret Jones, director of Assisted Housing at the Tampa Housing Authority, told WMNF. For instance, highlighting the successes and benefits of how just finding safe, quality, affordable housing can change a person’s life for the better.

“I get emails every day from families that are homeless,” said Jones. “Because the rent is too high, they don’t have a subsidy, and we have people that have vouchers that just can’t find a unit.”

The Hillsborough County ordinance doesn’t mandate that a property owner accept tenants who use vouchers, but it does prohibit refusing a tenant solely on that basis.

As it is, just finding safe, affordable housing with a voucher can by itself be tremendously difficult — in no small part due to a shortage in affordable housing stock, discrimination, and rising rents in the Hillsborough County area that can price voucher recipients out.

Jones believes protections against source of income discrimination can help those who receive public assistance find affordable housing — but also believes there’s a lack of awareness in the community about both the new law.

After Hillsborough County’s new law was approved last year, Jones tried to organize nightly town halls to help inform local landlords about the new anti-discrimination requirements, and to field any questions or concerns they had about what exactly was required of them.

But that didn’t really pan out. “No one would come, because they didn’t have to,” she said. You can provide information, she added, but if the landlord or property owner doesn’t want to participate, they’re “just not,” she said.

The county has held informational webinars about the law, conducted public outreach, created shareable resources about the ordinance, and has run advertisements on bus lines, according to Olsen.

On an ongoing basis, they also regularly perform “online sweeps” of rental websites and listings online to see if anyone is putting up listings that use discriminatory language related to public assistance.

“And sometimes we do find those,” said Olsen. “There’s a reactive approach that we take in accepting complaints, and we’re also proactive in our outreach and looking for violations of this ordinance.”

Hillsborough County is one of over 50 municipalities, and over a dozen states, that have approved SOI discrimination laws. St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Pinellas County have similar laws on the books — although the strength and enforcement of these protections vary.

Most recently, the city of Temple Terrace, an incorporated part of Hillsborough County that currently falls outside the jurisdiction of Hillsborough’s ordinance, is also seeking to join the coverage area.

Critics, including the local Bay Area Apartment Association, have rallied in opposition to these protections. They argue new tenant protections are an example of “government overreach” that can burden small landlords.

But advocates say SOI laws are a way to increase housing opportunities for all, including the community’s most vulnerable citizens, and to help prevent homelessness at a time when rent is still high, and the rising cost of living is pushing out everyday working people.

“Given our housing crisis that we obviously have, with rental prices going up about a quarter over the last year, this to me is just a modicum of dignity whenever it comes to this issue,” Tampa City Council member Luis Viera said earlier this year, as the city moved to pass its own similar source of income protections. “We haven’t seen the sky fall in the county,” he added, referring to Hillsborough County’s ordinance. “I think to the contrary, what we’ve seen is tenants in a lot of apartments in different places number one, know their rights.”

As it is, Hillsborough County is hoping to increase public awareness of the anti-discrimination protections and to ensure those who need this information — prospective tenants and landlords alike — have access to it.

“It’s very challenging getting the word out,” said Olsen.

How to report violations

If you believe you have been unlawfully discriminated against in a search for housing in Hillsborough County, you have a few options for how to report this.

Additional information and resources can be found here.

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