City Council to decide on Section 8

By Patrick Wade

The Champaign City Council will vote Tuesday night on whether to keep language in the city’s Human Rights Ordinance that defines “Section 8” vouchers as a source of income.

The Council voted 6-3 in favor of deleting the language in a study session last week.

In its current form, Champaign’s Human Rights Ordinance prohibits discrimination against any individual based on their source of income, thereby protecting Section 8 voucher holders.

Section 8 is a federal assistance program intended to provide adequate housing to low-income individuals, the elderly and people with disabilities. To receive rent payments from Section 8 voucher holders, landlords are required to sign a federal contract which supersedes the lease agreement in cases where the two conflict.

The language in the ordinance presents a problem for landlords, Dist. 5 Council member Ken Pirok said. He suggested last year that the issue be placed on the Council’s agenda.

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“There’s a lot of requirements put upon landlords by the federal government-written third party contract that is required for Section 8 that are very far outside the scope of normal business practices for the apartment industry,” Pirok said, a landlord himself.

Pirok said one example of these problems is if the tenant leaves in the middle of a lease, the landlord has “little or no recourse” to recoup the payment of the remainder of the lease.

“That’s problematic, especially in a college town where leases almost always start in August,” said Pirok, who added that if a tenant leaves early, it is very hard to get another tenant before the start of the next term.

Pirok was not present at the March 2006 meeting when an ordinance to define Section 8 vouchers as a source of income was passed by the Council 5-2. Since then, Deborah Frank Feinen and Karen Foster have been added to the Council.

“That’s three people who are on our current city council who have not gotten to vote on the Section 8 issue,” Pirok said.

The issue was tabled in October 2006 and will be on the Council’s agenda Tuesday night.

Mark Aber, chairman of the Champaign Human Relations Commission, said it is important to protect Section 8 voucher holders for the same reason people should not be discriminated against because of any category they are placed in.

In last week’s study session, the Human Relations Commission recommended that the Council add language to the ordinance clarifying what constitutes discrimination against Section 8 voucher holders. Under the commission’s recommendation, landlords would not have been required to hold an apartment during the inspection process, make repairs, or make changes in the application process to accommodate voucher holders.

“Some landlords were laboring under false pretenses about what the ordinance actually meant and what it didn’t mean,” Aber said. “And so we were hoping to help clarify what the ordinance actually meant.”

This recommendation was never voted on, as the first poll to delete the language altogether received a majority.

Although the city has not received a complaint of discrimination since Section 8 vouchers were defined as a source of income last year, former voucher holder Raymond Wrencher said that discrimination does exist.

“(The Human Relations Commission) put those rules and protections in the Section 8 program down here for a reason,” Wrencher said.

Marci Dodds, Dist. 4 Council member, said removing the language from the Human Rights Ordinance could encourage segregation in the city.

“Everybody has different prejudices,” Dodds said. “And so I think that there were a lot of people that felt like they were going to be forced into taking their prejudice to home.”

Wrencher said segregation is “already being done on a lower level,” and deleting the language would perpetuate this.

“You cannot tell me that some people would not want me to move out there with my son,” said Wrencher. “It happens already.”

There are 1,358 voucher holders in Champaign County, adding up to more than $8 million a year paid to landlords, said Edward Bland, executive director of the Housing Authority of Champaign County.

Landlords are not required to participate in the Section 8 program. However, as long as a property qualifies for the program, the landlord is not allowed to deny housing to a voucher holder on the grounds that they are a part of the program.

Bland said that right now, there are enough landlords participating in the program to accommodate all of the voucher holders.

“I think (landlords) want to participate, and I believe that was true before Section 8 was mandatory,” Pirok said. “And I believe that it will continue to be true after Section 8 is no longer mandatory.”