STATE HOUSE – A regional housing nonprofit
released a report this week that found rampant discrimination against Rhode
Island housing voucher recipients, and urged the adoption of legislation
sponsored by Sen. Harold M. Metts and Rep. Anastasia P. Williams to prevent it.
A study by Southcoast Fair Housing found that
although Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) recipients can afford more than one-third
of listed apartments statewide, they are ultimately rejected from 93 percent.
Over 9,300 households in Rhode Island rely on HCV to afford housing.
The organization uncovered what it described
as “systemic online discrimination against voucher recipients” during the
course of its research. When its researchers reached out to local housing
providers by phone, 63 percent refused to rent to any tenant with a voucher.
Another 11 percent expressed uncertainty.
Senator Metts and Representative Williams have
proposed bills to prohibit housing discrimination based on source of income
“Housing vouchers and other public assistance
programs help Rhode Island families to keep a roof over their heads,
particularly as rents rise,” said Representative Williams (D-Dist. 9,
Providence). “Every one of us has needed a helping hand at some point, and
folks should not face discrimination on that basis. This legislation is very
“I was in high school when there were
sit-ins against housing discrimination in the 1960s. How disappointing it is
that this discrimination still exists in 2019,” said Senator Metts (D-Dist. 6,
Providence). “We must make discrimination-free housing a civil right. Rhode
Island should not be divided into haves and have-nots, with certain families
stigmatized just because of the type of assistance they receive. That dynamic
weakens and segregates our communities.”
The legislation (2019-H 5137) adds “lawful
source of income” to the list of statuses — such as race, color, religion, sex,
sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and marital status —
that landlords may not use as a basis for their decisions about to whom
they will rent, or which units they will rent to them. The bill would not apply
to owner-occupied dwellings of three units or less.
The bill includes language that would still
allow landlords to ask whether a prospective tenants is at least 18 years old,
and allow them to check a prospective tenant’s income, its source and its
expected duration only for the purpose of confirming the renter’s ability to
The bill defines “lawful sources of income” as
“income or other assistance derived from Social Security; Supplemental Security
Income; any other federal, state or local general public assistance, including
medical assistance; any federal, state or local housing assistance, including
Section 8 Housing …, and any other rental assistance; child support; or
In addition to protecting tenants from being
refused housing based on their income, the bill protects them from other
unlawful housing practices, including segregation.
The House bill is cosponsored by House
Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick), Rep. Camille
F.J. Vella-Wilkinson (D-Dist. 21, Warwick), Rep. Jean Philippe Barros (D-Dist.
59, Pawtucket), and Rep. Jason Knight (D-Dist. 67, Barrington, Warren). Senator
Metts plans to introduce the bill soon in the Senate, which approved identical
legislation last year.
The HomesRI Income Discrimination Coalition, a
diverse group of local organizations and community stakeholders, supports the
legislation, as does Gov. Gina M. Raimondo. Fourteen states now prohibit
discrimination against lawful sources of income, but the practice remains legal
in Rhode Island.
Southcoast Fair Housing’s report, titled, “‘It’s
About the Voucher’ Source of Income Discrimination in Rhode Island,” is
available online here.
“Our findings are alarming. Source of income
discrimination hurts vulnerable tenants, and it’s happening in Rhode Island
every day,” said Claudia Wack, the legal fellow who authored the report.
Kristina da Fonseca, SCFH’s Executive
Director, hopes that the report will contribute to discussions around how to
improve Rhode Island’s civil rights laws.
“Income discrimination is a fair housing
issue,” said da Fonseca. “It limits housing choice, reduces access to
opportunity, and perpetuates concentrated poverty. That has to change.”
SCFH’s research came together with help from
local housing advocates and students from Brown University. Volunteers from the
student advocacy group Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE)
helped to collect statewide data, while members of “Mapping the Housing Crisis
in Providence,” an Urban Studies Department Independent Study Project,
contributed to research design and analysis at all stages.