Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich ordered the city of Tucson to accept a law that prohibits landlords from discriminating against renters who receive government assistance, after he deemed it unconstitutional.
Brnovich’s non-binding legal opinion is that Tucson’s “source of income” law is unconstitutional according to a press release published Thursday.
If Tucson does not rescind its ordinance within the next 30 days, the attorney general’s office will notify the state treasurer, who will withhold the city’s portion of state shared revenue until it comes into compliance, said Brittni Thomason, a spokesperson for the Arizona Attorney General’s office.
“Tucson’s ordinance restricting home sellers and (landlords) from considering the source of income of interested individuals violates state law,” Brnovich said in a press release on Thursday. “It must therefore be repealed within 30 days.”
Fewer landlords are accepting housing vouchers or leasing to tenants on Social Security in Arizona, and a growing number of people who are becoming homeless. Tucson’s ordinance is in response to the growing problem.
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Brnovich’s decision was based on a 1992 state law that ruled local fair housing ordinances had to be passed no later than Jan. 1, 1995. Tucson’s existing housing ordinance was amended on Sept. 27 with the “source of income” provision, 27 years after the 1992 law was passed.
The city attorney’s office said in a letter in response to the complaint that Tucson passed its fair housing ordinance in 1988, seven years before the purported deadline.
The letter further states that the 1992 state law authorizing cities to adopt fair housing ordinances before Jan. 1, 1995, “does not expressly prohibit enactments prior to that date or amendments after that date.”
City Attorney Mike Rankin said in an email he will evaluate the attorney general’s finding over the next few days and discuss the next steps with the city of Tucson mayor and council at the next available meeting.
The investigation into the legality of the ordinance began in November from a request made by the House speaker-elect and state Rep. Ben Toma of Peoria, who is a real estate agent.
According to the Arizona agency handbook, the attorney general is “authorized to provide a written opinion when requested to do so by the legislature, an individual member of the house of representatives or state senate, a public officer of the state, or a county attorney … Opinions must address a question of law relating to the office of the person requesting the opinion.”
The Tucson City Council passed the ordinance amending the city’s fair housing code to help address the worsening affordable housing crisis, according to a response letter written to the Office of the Attorney General by Jennifer Bonham, Tucson’s principal assistant city attorney.
In Tucson, median rent has risen 40% since 2017 and median home values are also increasing, from $176,199 in 2017 to $287,288 by the end of 2021, impacting 75,000 Tucson households who are paying “too much of their income on housing,” Bonham said in the letter.
The amendment in question expanded the city’s fair housing code to prohibit landlords from denying renters based on their source of income.
Bonham said this type of law protects people who might be discriminated against for using other types of income for housing like housing vouchers, as well as people with disabilities who receive Social Security disabilities, and foster families who receive foster care subsidies.
Long-standing federal housing and civil rights laws protect renters and homebuyers from some forms of housing discrimination, but enforcement can often take years.
While Toma’s complaint argued that the ordinance requires landlords to choose voucher recipients over other “more qualified” lessees, the Tucson City Attorney’s Office refuted that statement in its letter, stating landlords are not required to choose voucher recipients over other renters.
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“The city has been clear that property owners may continue to apply non-discriminatory screening criteria for prospective tenants,” stated the letter.
But Toma also claimed the ordinance prohibited landlords from evicting tenants “who may be eligible for rental assistance from city and county initiatives,” which the city attorney’s office also refuted.
Bonham clarified that while tenants using housing vouchers can be evicted for failing to pay rent, they cannot be evicted if the housing subsidy agency is late on distributing the subsidies.
The letter also stated the purpose of the fair housing code is to “level the playing field” for all tenants.
“This is important, now more than ever, given the scarcity of affordable housing in our state,” stated the letter.
Coverage of southern Arizona on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is funded by the nonprofit Report for America in association with The Republic.
Reach the reporter at [email protected].
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