Athens rental housing

Rental housing in Athens. Photo by Ben Peters.

Athens City Council on Monday took up an ordinance that would amend city housing law to prevent landlords from discriminating against potential renters on the basis of income, including those with vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The ordinance, introduced by Democratic Councilmember Arian Smedley for first reading, would make the offense and other housing discrimination violations against protected classes a minor misdemeanor associated with a $150 fine.

“I’m hopeful it passes. It’s an important piece of legislation that protects some of our most vulnerable people who have housing vouchers. Many of them are people with developmental disabilities," said Smedley, who’s also assistant superintendent of the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities. "As you know that’s a field I work in, so this adds a layer of protection for those who need it most.” 

The measure defines source of income as money earned through wages, social security, supplemental security income, child support, spousal support and public assistance, according to the ordinance. Also included are federal, state and local assistance payments or subsidies, including rent vouchers.

Landlords denying Section 8 vouchers isn't uncommon in Athens. The move by council comes on the heels of Prokos, one of the city’s largest providers of rental housing, opting to no longer accept HUD vouchers, leaving dozens of Athens County families unable to pay rent with federal subsidies, according to The Athens Messenger.

Southeastern Ohio Legal Services attorneys Peggy Lee and Lucy Schwallie said the practice by landlords creates significant hurdles for marginalized communities who are unable to find affordable housing in the area. Smedley worked closely with Lee and other experts in crafting the ordinance.

Similar laws have been passed in major Ohio cities like Columbus and Akron, as well as many Cleveland-area suburbs (The City of Cleveland is also considering a ban).

The issue has been brought to the forefront in Athens by activists like Damon Krane, an Independent running at-large for City Council who’s affiliated with advocacy group United Athens County Tenants, who say the city is long overdue in enacting these protections for renters. Lee and Schwallie have also in the past called on local landlords to accept housing vouchers.

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