Tyler Graber

Graber

A lawsuit filed in Walla Walla County Superior Court this week is one of a handful filed in Washington state on behalf of renters.

The action was taken by the Northwest Justice Project to stop illegal discrimination against people who rely on federal housing assistance, according to an announcement by the legal agency.

The nonprofit organization is Washington state’s largest publicly funded legal aid program, with offices in 18 communities. The Walla Walla office was established in 2006.

The same kind of lawsuit was also filed in King, Spokane, Snohomish and Thurston counties, said Tyler Graber, an attorney for Northwest Justice Project here.

At the heart of the action is a law enacted by the state Legislature in 2018 that says landlords cannot refuse to rent to someone solely because they use public assistance to pay that rent, Graber said.

Known also as “source of income discrimination,” at its base level the law is intended to keep the housing market fair to those who need help paying rent to find a safe, decent and sanitary home.

Typically that help comes from “Housing Choice” vouchers issued by the federal government and managed through community housing authorities. Here, that’s Walla Walla Housing Authority.

The voucher program, long known as “Section 8,” is aimed at helping very low income families choose where they live by paying part of the open market rental cost.

Washington was late coming to this non-discrimination table, Graber said, noting many other states had such limitations on landlords well before 2018.

From where he sits, it is difficult to understand why landlords would not accept Housing Choice vouchers, the attorney said.

“Really, what that denies is a source of income, a source of guaranteed money.”

As well, housing officials in Walla Walla do an excellent job of screening their clients, making the potential landlord’s job that much easier, Graber said.

While some local landlords might still be unaware of the 2018 law, most are familiar with it, particularly those with multi-unit properties, he added.

It is on the voucher holder to do their part to secure a place to live, said Renee Rooker, executive director of Walla Walla Housing Authority.

“We do hear that some landlords don’t want to accept vouchers. Or a customer might say ‘I can’t find anything.’ But how did you present at the appointment? What are your landlord references?”

Landlords here do check with each others on potential renters, looking for issues such as past property damage, a renter’s ability to follow the lease rules and more, Rooker said.

They also look at credit scores and criminal records, she added.

“That’s across the board at all of the management companies.”

Currently people with rent vouchers through the housing authority have 60 days to find housing, and in certain cases it can go up to 120 days. About 68% of voucher holders in this county are successful in their quest, Rooker said, noting the program’s year-long waiting list is now even longer due to budget constraints caused by COVID-19.

Her agency is requesting additional federal funding with the hope of getting the waiting list moving again, Rooker said.

Graber said Walla Walla’s perpetually tight rental market puts a squeeze on affordable housing here, and when landlords discriminate against how people pay their rent, it makes things worse.

Although a landlord is allowed to ask for sources of income, a voucher can’t rule an applicant out, he said.

“A person should not be prevented from living in a home they can afford simply because they rely on public assistance.”

The Northwest Justice Project has filed these lawsuits across Washington State since the law took effect, after landlords refused to rent to families who had rental assistance, the organization said.

The lawsuits filed Tuesday also seek monetary compensation for people who have been denied housing because they use public money to pay rent.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.