Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Committee Rejects Housing Voucher Incentives

Housing advocates concerned landlord incentives would mean county giving up on enforcing housing protections.

By - Jul 13th, 2023 11:26 am
Homes on S. 15th St. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Homes on S. 15th St. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A resolution that would have provided incentives to landlords not to discriminate against renters using Section 8 housing vouchers received pushback Wednesday before being voted down.

Housing advocates expressed concern that Supervisor Shawn Rolland‘s resolution indicated the county would give up on enforcing previously-approved legal protection of renters using federal housing vouchers, which provide public support for low-income individuals to live in private properties.

In 2018, the Milwaukee County Board passed a new ordinance that prohibits landlords from discriminating against potential renters because they plan to pay their rent with a voucher. Advocates told supervisors sitting on the board’s Health Equity, Human Needs and Strategic Planning Committee that they want to see the county prioritize enforcement before moving to incentives.

The lack of enforcement is why Rolland drafted his resolution. Renters facing alleged discrimination are required to file a “verified complaint” with the county’s Office of Corporation Counsel. After speaking with corporation counsel, Rolland discovered that zero verified complaints had been filed since the ordinance took effect in 2018.

The verification, according to Rolland, essentially requires someone facing housing discrimination to have their complaint notarized. In an interview with Urban Milwaukee, the supervisor said the process is too “onerous” and isn’t working.

The county’s attorneys provided an informal opinion to Rolland that the county’s ordinance may, in fact, actually be unenforceable even if a notarized complaint was filed. This stems from a 1995 decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Knapp v. Eagle Property Management, where the court found that state law concerning housing discrimination does not protect renters using Section 8 Housing Vouchers because they were not enumerated as a “lawful source of income.”

The ineffectiveness of the current system coupled with the questionable legal authority led Rolland to search for incentives to remedy the problem of housing voucher discrimination.

Erika Sanders, the new president and CEO of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, spoke against giving up on enforcement in favor of incentives. She said the housing council’s general counsel had the same interpretation of the Knapp decision as the county’s attorneys, but argued that the Knapp decision does not “restrict local jurisdictions’ ability to create expanded protections above and beyond state law.” Sanders said there’s nothing “inherently wrong with incentives,” but contended that housing voucher recipients should be treated like other protected classes.

We don’t provide incentives for housing providers not to discriminate based on disability or not to discriminate based on race,” Sanders said. “We have a bedrock assumption or expectation that they will and should comply with those portions of the ordinance because A) it’s the law and B) it’s the right thing to do.”

Another speaker providing comment to the committee, Brittni Shepard, told the committee that “incentives need to come after the person, or the party, has decided that they will abide by the law, because the first incentive should not be breaking the law.” Shepard added that she thought the county was up to the task of devising another scheme for enforcement. “I feel like it just takes a little bit of creativity.”

Sup. Ryan Clancy also made similar comments and drafted an amendment that struck the clause referencing the Knapp case; removed the clause noting that the current ordinance has led to zero complaints filed; removed the clause referencing information Rolland gathered from the county’s attorneys; removed the clause stating that the current system, as devised by the ordinance, has “questionable” effectiveness; and added language asking the same county agencies working on incentives to also work on ways to “compel” landlords to accept housing vouchers.

Rolland said he had no problem with Clancy’s amendment. “The key language to me is the [action] clause to begin the analysis of other incentive programs.” He said the county’s current enforcement process is broken.

I think we should talk, have a long conversation about process and how would we create an enforcement process that actually works and isn’t just in code or in ordinance, and we feel good about it,” he said.

Rolland added that he is “excited” about the potential for incentives, “Because I don’t think it would incent bad behavior, my hope is that it would incent good behavior. That’s the whole point of it. If we can still do enforcement, that’s great.”

James Mathy, director of the Milwaukee County Housing Division, said his department already has ideas for landlord incentives that could be brought to the board. He added that a lot of time all that’s required is educating the landlords about a housing program. “We love the idea of engaging landlords,” he said.

The director also noted that even if an incentive is landlord-based, it also works on behalf of the tenant, because, ultimately, providing housing for the renter is the goal. “The greatest landlord incentive we’ve ever seen is the Emergency Rental Assistance program,” Mathy said.

That federally-funded, pandemic-era program paid back rent and even future rent to prevent evictions. The county disbursed approximately $80 million covering rent for more than 22,000 households. “So the concept of incentives isn’t just for landlords, it’s for tenants as well,” Mathy said.

Rolland voted for Clancy’s amendment, but it failed on a 2-2 vote; with Rolland and Sup. Priscilla E. Coggs-Jones in support and Deanna Alexander and Tony Staskunas in opposition. While Clancy spoke at the meeting he does not sit on the committee and couldn’t vote. When Rolland’s original resolution came up for a vote, after the amendment failed, he was the only vote for it. The full county board could still act on the resolution.

Read Rolland’s resolution and Clancy’s amendment on Urban Milwaukee.

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One thought on “MKE County: Committee Rejects Housing Voucher Incentives”

  1. says:

    God help me. What is wrong with this city when we can’t mandate that landlords provide safe, clean and affordable housing for vulnerable individuals and families.?! Are landlords that despicable that they refuse to take Section 8 vouchers for families that need and require that support? Forget incentives. Have we not continually bent over backwards to let landlords get away with housing conditions that they and their family would never ever live in? Perhaps we need more financial repercussions to landlords with heftier fines for not keeping properties in top condition and for refusing to rent to vulnerable families just trying to survive. If you are one of those landlords, I don’t know how you sleep at night.

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