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Proposals to help renters with vouchers or criminal records could hit snag in General Assembly

Proposals to help renters with vouchers or criminal records could hit snag in General Assembly

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CHARLOTTE — Tenants in Charlotte who use vouchers or other forms of assistance and people with criminal records could find it easier to rent under a local effort to change fair housing laws, but the proposals could be slowed down by the General Assembly.

The City Council's Great Neighborhoods Committee on Wednesday voted to recommend changing state law to ban landlords from refusing vouchers or other assistance, and prohibit landlords from asking tenants about previous convictions before determining if they meet other rental requirements.

The full council now will decide whether to put these recommendations on the city's legislative agenda to push in Raleigh.

Council member Malcolm Graham, who chairs the committee, said he supports both measures.

"They work toward creating an environment that makes us, I believe, best in practice in terms of trying to ensure that we have fair housing policies for all of our citizens," he said.

But the recommendation to lobby state legislators differs from initial proposals brought by the two advocacy campaigns supporting the respective changes. Those groups called for amendments to the Charlotte fair housing ordinance to be passed locally without General Assembly approval.

Advocates say Charlotte should still pursue action locally. They fear that lack of political will in the statehouse will doom measures they say would help thousands find stable housing.

Proposed changes

One proposal would ban "source of income discrimination," meaning landlords couldn't refuse to accept housing vouchers or other forms of assistance if prospective tenants meet other rental requirements.

Leaders of a campaign to enact local source of income protections say renters with federal Housing Choice vouchers, commonly known as the Section 8 program, as well as veteran housing vouchers or other assistance, struggle to find landlords willing to take their payments. That aggravates an already dire affordable housing crisis.

Inlivian, which administers the Housing Choice program in Charlotte, reports that it takes 73 days on average for tenants with a voucher to find housing. And 20% are unsuccessful, forcing them to return the voucher.

Inlivian, formerly the Charlotte Housing Authority, is one of nearly three dozen Charlotte organizations that support a source of income discrimination ban.

More than a dozen states and 100 local governments have similar laws, including Atlanta, which passed a ban earlier this year. Nowhere in North Carolina are there renter source of income discrimination protections.

The re-entry housing provision would prohibit landlords from automatically disqualifying prospective tenants with misdemeanor or some felony convictions until determining whether they meet other rental criteria.

Prospective tenants would also have the right to show evidence of rehabilitation, such as proof they've completed court obligations, and could file complaints if they believe they've been discriminated against based on their criminal record.

Championed by the Re-entry Housing Alliance and nearly 40 other groups, the provision aims to level the playing field for tenants looking for housing and remove barriers to be successful after incarceration.

Showdown in Raleigh?

Pamela Wideman, the city's housing and neighborhood services director, told the committee the city attorney advises that "the most straightforward approach" to achieve both changes is to seek legislative authority from the General Assembly to change state law.

Charlotte leaders previously ran afoul of state legislators with the city's anti-discrimination policies in 2016, leading to the infamous House Bill 2 or "bathroom bill" to nullify Charlotte's expanded protections for members of the LGBTQ community in public accommodations.

State legislators at the time said Charlotte leaders overstepped their authority to expand protections.

But local leaders of the reentry housing and source of discrimination campaigns say Charlotte should still amend its own ordinance.

"Where we do have the political capital, (and) that interest, is here in Charlotte," said Ryan Carter, advocacy and outreach coordinator for Habitat Charlotte, one of the groups championing the source of income proposal.

"I don't want to see this get gobbled up in a legislative agenda, then go to Raleigh where it dies some unceremonious death in a committee backlog when we can do it here, now," he said.

Council member Braxton Winston said Wednesday he was in favor of amending the Charlotte ordinance to expand protections for people with vouchers and convictions while still working to make statewide changes.

"Yes, we know that we need federal and state support to make this have teeth," he said. "But there are things that we can do at the local level to really push this conversation forward."

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