Last spring, Charmaine Crossley was excited to learn she would receive a Section 8 voucher to help her cover rent. However, when she texted her landlord’s son to give him the good news that she would be receiving rental assistance, he wrote back, “We do not accept Section 8 at this time.”
Crossley suspected that wasn’t right. She was correct.
She recently won a case against her landlord for discriminating based on where she got her rental income. Washington’s source-of-income statute went into effect in September 2018, so landlords have had more than a year to familiarize themselves with the law, which says they can’t treat prospective or current tenants differently or add conditions to their rent based on where their money comes from whether it’s Section 8, Social Security income or disability payments.
During Crossley’s text exchange with Bill Hibbs, the son of property owner Diana Main, she explained to him that there was a law preventing landlords from refusing to rent to tenants based on their rental-income source and sent him relevant links.
Afterward, he wrote, “I don’t want to give you the impression that we are refusing to rent to you based on the fact that you have qualified for Section 8 because that is not the case. I simply said we are not accepting Section 8 vouchers.”
Crossley involved Kate Dunphy, deputy director of the Tenants Union of Washington, sending her copies of the texts.
“She was first just clarifying the law with me,” Dunphy said.
Dunphy previously worked with Crossley on an eviction case in 2017, which she lost. During that first case, Crossley’s landlord wouldn’t accept her rental assistance, but at the time there was no law in unincorporated Clark County to prevent her from losing her housing.
In July, Crossley was given a 20-day notice to vacate that said she and her children needed to leave so the landlord could house a family member. Dunphy called Main to make sure she knew about Washington’s source-of-income discrimination law. During the conversation Main expressed concern with Crossley’s ability to pay rent. According to documents filed in Clark County Superior Court, Main told Dunphy: “I was thinking she couldn’t afford to live there and wouldn’t admit it.”
Still, an eviction case moved forward.
Tim Murphy, a local Northwest Justice Project attorney representing Crossley, called the eviction “a thinly veiled runaround.” He told The Columbian it’s rare that discrimination is this obvious and in writing. He asked the court to dismiss the eviction action due to the documented income discrimination and because the eviction notice was delivered to Crossley’s 13-year-old daughter.
“The language employed by the statute is mandatory rather than permissive,” Murphy wrote in his response to the eviction filing.
In the end, Crossley was awarded her full security deposit of $1,495, free rent for August through November and a positive housing reference — and the original eviction was dismissed with prejudice, meaning the eviction can’t be refiled. The law allows tenants to sue landlords for up to 4 1/2 times rent plus attorney fees.
Crossley agreed to move out by Nov. 7 and has settled into a new home with her family in east Vancouver. She’s also seeking an order of limited dissemination, which limits an eviction record’s use by renter screening agencies.
“Only because I knew my rights did it go the way I needed it to go,” Crossley said in a phone interview with The Columbian.
Murphy lauded Crossley for getting involved early in the process and being aware of her rights and available resources; not every renter is in that position.
About two-thirds of Murphy’s caseload is related to housing, a subject he cares about due to the lack of places to live. He said getting a Section 8 voucher isn’t easy and that people using rental subsidies are more stable tenants because they don’t have the luxury to move around a lot.
“It’s actually guaranteed money because the government is paying it,” Murphy said of Section 8.
Confusion among landlords
For larger landlords with dozens of units, their attorneys keep them current on laws and new tenant protections. But some smaller, long-time landlords have conducted business the same way for years and may ignore new laws or may discriminate in other ways, said Lyn Ayers, president of the Clark County Rental Association.
“They take very little pains about keeping current with the laws,” Ayers said, adding that for some being a landlord is a side gig. “We still get landlords that say ‘no kids’ or ‘no gays.’ ”
Ayers, who’s been a landlord for about 30 years, said the Clark County Rental Association discussed income discrimination back when Vancouver was looking to implement a law. With just over 300 members, the group represents a slice of the county’s landlords. Some local landlords used to say using a Section 8 voucher immediately disqualified potential tenants, but the new law changes things.
“By law, we have to treat everybody the same,” Ayers said.
Ayers said what counts as a “source of income” can be tricky to interpret. Would it include someone who’s on a college scholarship? And, he said, the formula for determining how much someone needs to earn can be problematic. If someone pays $200 in monthly rent because they receive a subsidy for the remainder, that means (assuming the renter needs to make three times rent) they have only $600 — a difficult sum to live on.
“We’re looking at ourselves as the good guys. …A lot of people make us out to be the bad guys,” Ayers said, noting that some landlords offer below-market rents. “Typically, the small landlord is the one that is most flexible to responding to renter needs.”
Ayers, for instance, said he’s had one tenant since 1994 and knows if he raised her rent to market rate she couldn’t afford it; so, he keeps rent low.
“It’s hard being a good landlord because there’s a lot to know, and it’s getting more difficult,” he said.
That can lead to landlords selling properties, resulting in less choice in the rental market.
Dunphy, with the Tenants Union, said statewide landlord registries could offer a way to notify and enforce changes in rental laws. While some landlords need to be educated about tenant protections, what the Tenants Union sees more often is “willful disregard” for the law, she said.
“That’s what we saw in this case,” Dunphy said.
“It’s so frustrating that landlords do this. And then when they’re educated, they still try to do this,” Crossley said.
Racial in effect
While history shows that Seattle and the broader Northwest region excluded people of color from living in certain places, it’s still happening now in a different way, said Ian Kennedy, a graduate student at the University of Washington’s sociology department. While source-of-income discrimination is not racial in language, it’s racial in effect, he said. People on housing assistance are disproportionately nonwhite.
“I think it causes harm whether it’s racial or not,” Kennedy said.
Crossley is a woman of color and a single mother.
Kennedy is working with the Northwest Justice Project on a project analyzing Craigslist ads in Washington. He’s determining whether any listings may be illegal based on their wording. The project is separate from Kennedy’s university work looking at how racism and segregation occur in housing.
As recently as the late 1960s there were explicitly racist housing ads in Seattle, restricting the sale or rental of property to whites only. Racially restrictive covenants noted whether a house was in a whites-only area or prohibited certain racial groups. Even though Seattle is now integrated by law, it hasn’t resulted in much change, Kennedy said.
“It’s tricky trying to address the housing challenges people are facing,” he said, adding that lots of different interventions are needed.
Erin Carll, a doctoral candidate in the University of Washington’s sociology department, feels the same way. She was part of a rental housing study commissioned by the city of Seattle that asked tenants about their experiences in the housing market.
“On one hand there wasn’t a lot of awareness of the regulations that had passed and the protections available,” she said in an interview with The Columbian.
On the other hand, tenants questioned whether property owners and managers would maneuver around new regulations. Landlords in the study expressed frustration with Seattle’s ordinances and the city council’s responses to housing challenges; the strongest resistance was among people who managed larger or well-established properties.
Although Dunphy considers the law and Crossley’s case a win, she’s worried about the cases the Tenants Union doesn’t see because renters don’t know their rights. Also, people who discriminate rarely put their statements in writing. She said the eviction notice could have stood if Crossley didn’t have documentation.
“There’s no remedy. There’s no way to prove it or stop it,” Dunphy said.
The Tenants Union plans to push for additional renter protections during the upcoming legislative session. The group most commonly hears complaints about rent increases and tenants receiving no cause notices to vacate after, say, asking for a repair.
“We could be doing so much better,” Dunphy said.