Anti-discrimination law to protect people experiencing homelessness dies in Council, again
The Michael A. Stoops Anti-Discrimination Amendment Act, named after the homelessness advocate and board member of Street Sense who died in 2017, stalled out in the D.C. Council for the second time as the last legislative meeting of the 2019-2020 session came and went this month.
The bill, first introduced in 2017 by Councilmember At-Large David Grosso and reintroduced in 2019 by Grosso and three other members, would amend the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 to add homelessness as a class protected against discrimination. Over the past three years, the bill has received only one public hearing, in October. But the Government Operations Committee, chaired by Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, did not move the bill on for a full-council vote. In the previous legislative session, the bill was referred to the Committee of the Judiciary, chaired by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, but never given a hearing.
A 2014 study of people experiencing homelessness in the District found that just under 93% had experienced some form of discrimination because of their housing status. While respondents reported experiencing the most discrimination from private businesses (at 70%), two-thirds reported experiencing discrimination from law enforcement, and just under half said they were discriminated against by social services and medical services.
The same study recommended the District pass something akin to a homeless bill of rights, a step other jurisdictions have taken to protect their residents experiencing homelessness. Rhode Island was the first state to pass this type of legislation in 2012, amending their Fair Housing Act to prevent discrimination against people experiencing homelessness. Since then, Illinois, Puerto Rico, and Connecticut all passed similar legislation. Some of these bills are more comprehensive than the Stoops Act, going beyond preventing discrimination to guarantee rights including the right of people experiencing homelessness to move freely through public spaces, receive emergency medical care, and have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
The push for the bill in D.C. has been spearheaded by the People for Fairness Coalition, an organization led by homeless and formerly homeless individuals. The namesake of the bill, Stoops, mentored members of PFFC as well as worked on the 2014 survey and advocated for D.C. to adopt a homeless bill of rights. A longtime advocate for people experiencing homelessness, Stoops was a co-founder of the National Coalition for the Homeless and played a key role in the passage of the federal government’s largest response to homelessness, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. He died in 2017, the same year Grosso introduced the first version of the bill.
Failure to act on this legislation shows there is not a strong coalition in the Council fighting for the rights of people experiencing homelessness, according to PFFC Advocacy Director Reginald Black. He said that while D.C. Council did give the bill a hearing, the way it was handled felt like it was, “done just to check boxes on things” and there was no opportunity given for a question and answer period. The hearing was combined with another bill, The Fair Tenant Screening Act, which got considerably more attention from public witnesses. “I don’t even know who would be willing to introduce [the anti-discrimination bill] next session. Who do we take the bill to?” Black said.
Though the D.C. Human Rights Act already includes 21 more protected traits than the federal version of the law, the Council has been hesitant to amend it. Another bill introduced this session, the CROWN Act, which would have prevented discrimination based on hairstyles also failed to make it out of committee.
If passed, the Stoops Act would be enforceable by the Office of Human Rights (OHR), an office that has been routinely overburdened by individual civil rights complaints and the lengthy process of investigating each one. In the Committee on Government Operations Fiscal Year 2020 Committee Budget Report, it was recommended that the OHR “make better effort to minimize delays in the intake process.” The report also recommended increasing the budget by 2.7% to provide more resources for the agency.
This past February, there was a hearing to discuss the Attorney General Civil Rights Enforcement Clarification Amendment Act of 2019 which would authorize the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) to bring civil actions under the Human Rights Act and provide some assistance to the OHR. In June, the OAG added a new civil rights section to crack down on housing discrimination, including discrimination based on past housing status. The OAG began taking action by filing a lawsuit against a landlord for discrimination and discriminatory advertising against renters with housing vouchers.
In the public hearing on the bill, Hnin Khaing, the general counsel of OHR, testified the office was in support of the bill, but would require additional funding to handle any additional cases and to develop new outreach materials including homelessness as one of the protected classes.
While most of the hearing focused on The Fair Tenant Screening Act, the members of the public who did testify about the Stoops Act displayed overwhelming support for its passage.
Kate Coventry, a senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, testified in favor of the bill, arguing that D.C. residents who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness also experience discrimination at high rates. “This legislation would protect residents experiencing homelessness from discrimination in purposes of employment, places of public accommodation, educational institutions, public service, housing, and commercial space,” Coventry said in her testimony.
The bill has also been endorsed by So Others Might Eat, the Children’s Law Center, the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, the Fair Housing Clinic at the Howard University School of Law, and the National Homelessness Law Center.
Testifying on behalf of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Amber Harding said her organization is often powerless to help the many people experiencing homelessness who contact them with complaints about discrimination. This discrimination can look like ignoring the job applications of those living in shelters because they list the address of a shelter on their application, not allowing people experiencing homelessness to enter buildings because the employees know they are homeless, or enforcing laws about public behavior differently for people experiencing homelessness than for housed individuals.
“Although we believe D.C. should aspire to be [a] ‘human rights city’ by providing enough affordable housing to end homelessness, until that goal is realized, the least it can do is protect people from discrimination while they are homeless,” Harding wrote in her testimony.
Formerly homeless residents also testified in favor, sharing their own experiences of discrimination.
George Olivar, a PFFC member who is originally from Mexico, moved to D.C. in 2014 but found his social security was not sufficient to cover housing. While he was experiencing homelessness, he was barred from using a restroom and received no responses from apartments and jobs when his application contained the fact he was homeless or lived in a shelter.
“While I cannot provide definitive proof, I believe that the fact that I lived in a shelter, combined with the color of my skin, contributed in all three cases to these rejections,” he said in his testimony.
Many of those who testified in favor of the bill saw it as a way to reduce the long-term effects homelessness can have on an individuals’ employment and housing prospects.
Alex Grady, a Howard graduate and Georgetown Law student, provided written testimony stressing the need for an already vulnerable population to be protected from further discrimination. “This bill is a way to ensure that people experiencing homelessness have equal access to economic mobility and the resources afforded to other vulnerable classes. These rights must be codified, especially since we know that they are not being respected in the absence of this crucial legislation,” Grady wrote.
The pandemic has only highlighted the preexisting injustices that cause homelessness. The District has the nation’s highest rate of homelessness, with 93 people experiencing homelessness out of every 10,000. This number is only expected to increase once the eviction moratorium ends with the public health emergency. People in District shelters are three times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than other D.C. residents and three times more likely to die due to COVID-19. The number of D.C. residents experiencing homelessness who have died due to COVID-19 remained flat from July 16 to Dec. 13 but increased to 22 after another death was reported on Dec. 14, according to city data. There were 301 new positive cases detected in the District on Dec. 15. December has also seen an increase in coronavirus-related hospitalizations, the highest rates since June.
Donald Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, who testified at the hearing and has been advocating for the bill, pointed out that adding homelessness as a protected class could directly reduce that high rate of infection. “The CDC says you shouldn’t displace people right now because you multiply the vulnerability. We shouldn’t do camp sweeps, which we are seeing, and these are the common discrimination practices that the Michael Stoops bill would cover,” Whitehead said. “They wouldn’t allow people to be discriminated against simply because they are homeless” noting the importance that homeless individuals “should have rights as well.”
The District has a more progressive policy on evictions than the national one; while the nationwide eviction moratorium ends in January, D.C.’s moratorium is tied to the end of the public health emergency. However, these moratoriums do not stop evictions from happening. Whitehead argued the government must respond to the demand for affordable housing in the city.
“The city needs to create more affordable housing and stop giving housing subsidies and creating upscale housing in the community,” he said.”So many units have been lost to the market due to gentrification in the district that trend needs to be reversed.”
What gap would it fill?
According to Delta Associates, luxury apartment vacancy rates in the District have nearly doubled from 4.4% to 7.8% in the last year. Those empty apartments could be used for those in need of affordable housing. The District had the highest percentage of gentrifying neighborhoods between 2000 and 2013, displacing 20,000 people, predominantly Black residents.
Additionally, deciding whether to provide employment based on credit is prohibited in the District, but determining housing access based on credit is not, leading to discrimination against those with histories of economic struggle. Lori Leibowitz, an attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services, said housing providers can legally deny those with low credit even though that does not prove that a tenant is not currently able to pay their rent.
“Unfortunately, many people who are experiencing homelessness have no credit or bad credit or an eviction on their record,” Leibowitz said. “If you had great credit history and great rental history, you probably wouldn’t be experiencing homelessness.”
There are also subtle methods landlords use to make it more difficult for individuals with vouchers or those experiencing homelessness to find housing. According to Leibowitz, landlords will change the rent advertised so it is above the maximum value of a housing voucher or they will not allow inspections until 24 hours before move-in, knowing that most rental subsidy programs require an inspection before the lease is signed. None of these tactics are legal. But because they are subtle, most people don’t realize such actions are illegal discrimination and that help is available. Leibowitz said.
“Once we get these cases, they are usually easy to prove,” Leibowitz said. “But the cases aren’t coming through the door.”
These forms of discrimination are just some of the issues the Stoops bill could address if passed. According to Whitehead, the legislation would be a small step towards ending discrimination in the District, “I think it would be a start. There are a couple of other things that need to be put in place and there are long discrimination lines,” Whitehead said. “But the Michael Stoops bill is absolutely a start and we certainly can’t get to those more concrete solutions until we get started and this is just a very minimal start to get moving to a place where we can actually start to reduce homelessness.”
Prospects in 2021
If the legislation is introduced again in a similar form, the Council will not need to hold another hearing and can bring it to a vote sooner, according to Grosso.
“Since I chose not to seek re-election, it will fall to other councilmembers to re-introduce the legislation next Council Period,” Grosso wrote in an email to Street Sense Media. “Advocates need to continue to carry the bill forward and encourage other councilmembers to take up the cause next year.”
Newly elected At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson, a former staffer for Grosso, said, “I am supportive of the Michael A. Stoops Anti Discrimination bill and think it will be introduced next year. At this point, I do not know if one of the more senior councilmembers who were co-introducers of the legislation (R. White, Cheh, or Nadeau) would want to lead on this bill. But I will confer with them in the new year.”
[Read more: Christina Henderson on housing and homelessness]
When asked about the status of the bill and whether it would be introduced in the next legislative session, most councilmembers referred Street Sense Media to Grosso and another main sponsor, Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, who chaired the Government Operations Committee that gave the bill its only hearing. None of these offices gave a definite answer on the status of the bill. Incoming Ward 4 Councilmember Janesse Lewis George could not be reached for comment.
This article has been corrected to reflect that the subtle tactics landlords use to discriminate against prospective tenants are all illegal. It previously referred to them as legal loopholes. Language was also clarified to show that it is legal to deny rental applications based on a person’s credit but not to discriminate against those with no credit. It previously stated housing providers could legally discriminate against people based on their credit.