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Kentucky Legislature takes aim at Louisville’s housing discrimination ban

A red "for rent" sign in front of a red-brick apartment complex with flowering bushes
Jacob Munoz
/
LPM
A pair of bills moving through the Kentucky General Assembly would nullify Louisville's source-of-income discrimination ban.

Housing advocates are sounding the alarm about a pair of bills advancing through the Kentucky General Assembly. They say the legislation would nullify part of Louisville’s Fair Housing ordinance.

House Bill 18 and Senate Bill 25 would ban local governments from forcing landlords to participate in federal housing assistance programs, including the Section 8 voucher program. Louisville is the only city in Kentucky that bans discrimination against renters based on their source of income, but there exist no laws in the state that require landlords to accept housing vouchers.

The two bills have spurred debate about local control, private property rights and the affordable housing crisis. HB 18 and SB 25 have already passed their respective houses, and await action in the other chamber. That means residents still have time to weigh in.

Louisville’s Fair Housing Ordinance

Hope Leet Dittmeier’s sister-in-law, Ann Dittmeier, was born with a developmental disability, but she never let it stop her from living an ordinary life.

Ann was one of the first people in Kentucky to get supported employment services, according to Hope. She worked for over 30 years, sang in the church choir, and, at one point, owned her own home in the Highlands.

“She was a rock star,” Hope said. “And then, she entered the Section 8 system and it was just deplorable.”

Hope said Ann downsized as she grew older, selling her house in favor of renting an apartment. She eventually started to run out of proceeds from the sale, so she applied for and received a Section 8 Housing voucher through the Louisville Metro Housing Authority.

Man in blazer stands behind woman in wheelchair at a state fiar
Courtesy of Hope Leet Dittmeier
Ann Dittmeier, left, with her brother Paul at the Kentucky Derby Festival.

A voucher represents a promise of federal funds that a person can use to pay their rent. Its value is usually tied to the average rent in the specific area.

Even with a voucher in hand, Hope said finding an apartment that would accept it was difficult.

“We went to two places, we showed them the voucher, and when we went back to file the applications the rent had gone up to just above the voucher amounts,” she said.

Ann managed to sign a lease on an apartment in 2021, but there were problems from the start.

Hope said Ann’s Section 8 voucher was short of covering the rent by less than $100. But there was an easy fix: The landlord just had to send a copy of the lease to the housing authority, which could then adjust her voucher to cover the full cost.

Instead, Hope said they tried to evict Ann.

“The bottom line was they did not want to rent to Ann and they were doing everything they could, legally, to either avoid it or argue,” she said.

Hope appealed Ann’s eviction to the Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission, which is responsible for enforcing Louisville’s Fair Housing Ordinance.

Ann’s family argued she was being discriminated against because she was trying to use a Section 8 voucher. Source-of-income discrimination has been illegal in Louisville since 2020, when Metro Council expanded its housing protections.

The Human Relations Commission helped Ann reach a settlement with the landlord, and she continued to live in the apartment through the end of the one-year lease.

But the process was so taxing on Ann’s family they decided not to try to use the voucher again.

“The family had gone through eight months of fighting and they weren’t ready to do that again,” Hope said. “And Ann went to a nursing home.”

Just three months after moving into an assisted living facility, Ann died at the age of 73.

Ann’s case is just one example of Louisville’s Fair Housing ordinance in action.

The Kentucky Fair Housing Council, based in Lexington, has brought a number of cases to the Human Relations Commission. Many source-of-income discrimination cases are cut-and-dry, like if a landlord writes “We do not accept Section 8” on their website or a rental advertisement.

Last year, the Fair Housing Council found a Louisville-based property management company was charging landlords additional fees if they accepted Section 8 vouchers. The company openly advertised the mark-up on its website.

Although the company removed that language after the Council contacted them, they are currently facing a $5,000 fine from the Human Relations Commission and a court case is pending.

In addition to source of income, Louisville's Fair Housing Ordinance bans discrimination by landlords on the basis of arrest record, homeless status, prior military service and other federally protected classes.

‘Not the way to go’

HB 18, which would ban cities and counties in Kentucky from forcing landlords to accept any form of federal housing assistance, is sponsored by Republican state Rep. Ryan Dotson.

His district includes parts of Lexington and Fayette County, where housing advocates have been pushing the Urban-County Council to pass discrimination protections similar to Louisville’s.

Dotson told a House committee last month that his reason for filing the bill was simple: protecting private property rights from government overreach.

“Housing is an issue,” Dotson said. “There is a shortage of it. But how do we address it? Forcing this on our individual property owners is not the way to go.”

Joe Marcum, a real estate investor in Central Kentucky, testified at that same committee meeting. Marcum said he opposes the source-of-income protection, in part, because he doesn’t think it accomplishes the goals housing advocates have.

“It will not make a single unit available in a better area with better resources,” Marcus said “The rents in those areas are already higher than what voucher holders can legally pay.”

Instead, Marcum argued source-of-income protections “effectively establish a floor for rental rates” as landlords try to avoid renting to Section 8 voucher holders by pricing units above the maximum the federal government will pay.

Some of the people who spoke in favor of HB 18 also relied on negative stereotypes about low-income renters who rely on Section 8, suggesting they are more likely to damage property or violate lease agreements.

The Kentucky Apartment Association, which represents companies that own, manage and develop multi-family housing, is supporting HB 18 and SB 25. Executive Director J.D. Carey said the change would give landlords more “flexibility, certainty and uniformity” when deciding whether to participate in federal housing programs.

‘Just makes it harder to re-house’

Housing advocates, including the Coalition for the Homeless in Louisville, say the bills threaten to move the state backwards when it comes to dealing with the affordable housing crisis.

Natalie Harris, the Coalition’s executive director, said the experience of Ann and her family trying to find rental housing with a Section 8 voucher isn’t unique.

Many low-income residents wait years to receive a voucher. When they finally get one, they have a deadline to find a quality apartment that will pass a federally mandated inspection.

Despite Louisville’s ban on source-of-income discrimination, Harris said some landlords just don’t want to rent to Section 8 voucher holders. Part of the problem, she said, is perception.

“I think there are people who really believe that if you are paying with a voucher that, for some reason, you are a lesser tenant than a person who is paying with some other income source,” she said.

Harris said negative stereotypes about low-income renters aren’t grounded in any data. In fact, she said there are benefits to participating in the Section 8 program, including guaranteed, on-time payment for landlords.

“You also have someone to contact who is working with that tenant in case there is a problem,” Harris said. “You have somebody who is helping you to make sure that person stays in their housing.”

The Coalition represents more than 30 organizations in Louisville that help support people experiencing housing insecurity. Its members include the Center for Women and Families, the Salvation Army and the Legal Aid Society, which provides free legal services for landlord-tenant disputes, unlawful evictions and violations of Fair Housing laws.

Danny Matlock, senior housing attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said finding housing in Louisville for low-income residents can sometimes feel impossible. When they have a client who’s been evicted, Matlock said the list of potential places to live becomes even shorter.

He said doing away with source-of-income protections will only worsen the city’s affordable housing crisis.

“Changing the law just makes it harder to rehouse and we kind of find ourselves back to, ‘Well, there’s not enough beds for butts,’” Matlock said.

A 2017 housing needs assessment commissioned by Louisville Metro found the city needed more than 31,000 new housing units for its lowest income residents.

The Kentucky League of Cities has joined housing advocates in opposing the bills. In a recent Senate committee meeting, KLC Director of Public Affairs Bryanna Carroll said the organization, which represents cities and counties in the state, sees HB 18 and SB 25 as an attack on local control.

“It’s a slippery slope when you begin to erode those processes and we believe the community can make the best decisions for themselves,” Carroll said.

Despite these concerns, the Kentucky General Assembly appears poised to sign the two bills into law. Up to now, they have received unanimous support from the Republican supermajority in both houses.

For Hope Leet Dittmeier, who watched her sister-in-law Ann struggle to find an apartment in her final year, the current debate in Frankfort is frustrating.

“It’s disheartening that people rally around ‘Please, let us legally discriminate,’ and nobody seems to be rallying around ‘How do we solve this?’” she said.

Hope said she wants lawmakers to stop focusing on what they think isn’t working, and instead put forward legislation that actually helps people get into housing.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.