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Housing law bans discrimination based on income subsidies, citizenship status

For 14 years Elizabeth Barnes worked for Erie County, but she had to quit when she could no longer drive because of Parkinson's disease. She and her 14-year-old daughter now live in a women's shelter. When she received a low-income Section 8 housing voucher, she was excited by the prospect of finding a suburban apartment near a good school with her monthly out-of pocket rent contribution pegged at $414.

But after calling and making appointments with prospective landlords, she realized finding that kind of apartment would not be so easy for her. Just about two weeks ago, a Kenmore landlord seemed eager to rent her an apartment until learning Barnes had a voucher.

"She just shook her head and said, 'Absolutely not.' She said she had two horrible experiences with the last two tenants who had Section 8," said Barnes, 49. "I found myself begging this woman, trying to validate my existence."

The Erie County Legislature on Thursday voted 9 - 2 to approve a Fair Housing Law to make it illegal for landlords or property owners to discriminate against prospective tenants who receive government subsidies like vouchers or who are not U.S. citizens. County Executive Mark Poloncarz has indicated he will sign the measure into law. In a Twitter post, he said he has championed the Fair Housing Law for two years and thanked legislators for "supporting this important law."

The law would expand existing state and federal anti-discrimination housing laws to include protections for "source of income" and "immigration and citizen status." Housing advocacy organizations say many prospective renters who receive Social Services assistance and low-income housing vouchers are regularly denied places to live.

Some Erie County municipalities, including Buffalo, already forbid discrimination based on source of income, but most do not, said DeAnna Eason, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a local civil rights agency.

The law would provide housing law uniformity across the county, she said.

"The idea of the law is not only to benefit low-income residents of the county, but it's for everyone," she said. "Everyone should be in favor of equal, fair housing."

The county law received strong support from public agencies and the Buffalo Niagara Association of Realtors at a public hearing last week. But the law is likely to be met with frustration from some landlords who believe they should have more control and say over whom they accept as tenants.

The law would provide exemptions under certain circumstances to religious organizations and owner-occupied rentals.

"Finally, the Legislature is doing something that should have been, could have done, two years ago," said former Buffalo legislator Betty Jean Grant, who initially sponsored the Fair Housing Law in 2016.

The law was later updated and resubmitted by Legislature Democrats to ban discrimination based on citizenship and immigration status.

Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, and Kevin Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, initially said they opposed the law because it would open up property owners to more lawsuits from any person or organization, not just the affected applicant.

Legislator April Baskin, D-Buffalo, responded that there should be no barrier to holding discriminating landlords accountable.

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Lorigo also criticized the law as creating more county bureaucracy because of the enforcement provisions and creation of a five-member Fair Housing Board that would hear complaints and have the power to assess fines of up to $5,000 for a first offense.

The minority caucus pushed two amendments to soften the proposed law, both of which were defeated. Several members of the minority caucus joined the majority caucus in supporting the Fair Housing Law. Legislators Edward Rath III and Hardwick voted against it.

Barnes, who holds a master's degree in social work, said she learned not to inform potential landlords that she has a low-income housing voucher until after meeting with them and assuring them of her character and history.

"When I was honest, people didn't even want to meet with me," she said. "I kept getting a lot of emails saying no, sorry, we don't accept Section 8."

She recognizes some landlords have had bad experiences with other tenants who receive government subsidies, but that a careful vetting of her references would make it clear to landlords that she would be an ideal tenant.

Eason called the tougher anti-discrimination law "a step in the right direction" in a region considered one of the most segregated in the United States. She expects enforcement of the anti-discrimination housing laws to remain difficult.

Meanwhile, after weeks of frustration, Barnes signed a lease Wednesday after meeting with an Amherst landlord who believes in fair housing and agreed to rent a condo to her starting in June.

"She was like a godsend," Barnes said.

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