Hey Gainesville! Enforce your housing discrimination ordinance

by Renz Torres, Alachua County Labor Coalition

“They sent us a collection letter for $16,000,” said A, one Collier tenant. She is being sued for $16,000 in damages after Collier stopped accepting COVID-related housing assistance.

“Your staycation is over,” said a property manager to K, another Collier tenant. She was served a lease non-renewal because her property manager received her ERAP funds late.

We hear about stories like these often at the Alachua County Labor Coalition, where tenants are losing their housing because corporate landlords like Collier refuse to accept housing assistance money. Last year, the City of Gainesville passed Ordinance #190814 to extend protections against discrimination to those paying rent with vouchers and other rental assistance. Yet despite almost one-and-a-half years of the ordinance’s passing, we’re still hearing about unresolved tenant discrimination.

“I ended up in the hospital because of all the stress,” said A. Even after leaving the hospital and sending medical documentation to the property managers, they filed an eviction against her earlier in mid-2021. Ultimately the eviction was served, and she had to leave in September 2021 with $16,000 in damages against her.

K came down with COVID in her nursing work, making her eligible for ERAP. Her property managers took the ERAP but then suddenly told her they stopped accepting ERAP. “I could have taken the payment from ERAP in my name and relocated,” K said, “but I had no idea up to the last minute they wasn’t going to renew my lease.” Now she has to find a new home for her household as she works two nursing jobs.

“I don’t want to be homeless with my family.”

• • •

“Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Collier has Got To Go!”

We held an action on Oct. 21 at the Collier office to protest their refusal to accept housing vouchers. “Now [Collier is] saying that they accept housing vouchers,” Sheila Payne, ACLC co-chair said, “but they’re saying they don’t sign HUD paperwork.” Collier has been circumventing the City’s source-of-income protection with their internal policy of not signing third-party paperwork.

“Because of their financial status … their upbringing … they are denied adequate housing,” said a pastor, one of the many community voices of the protest. He was speaking to 60 people crowded on N Main Street and NW 2nd Avenue sometimes drowned out by supportive honks and shouts from rush hour traffic passing by.

Community-wide implications reverberate from the refusal to accept housing vouchers, ERAP, and similar programs. “We often talk about homelessness like it’s about mental health issues, substance abuse issues,” Bryan Eastman, co-chair of GRACE Marketplace, said, “[but] the vast majority of homelessness [is] a mother who’s trying to figure out how to get someone to accept her housing voucher, a young man trying to keep his job while he sleeps in his car.” Housing vouchers, he continued, work to keep people in place, to prevent people from moving, to have some stability.

One renter assures, “We will not stop fighting until justice is won,”

• • •

One major problem with Ordinance #190814 is the City’s lack of enforcement. For example, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program is structured so that the landlord has to consent to participating in the program. In other words, a landlord’s “no” can mean someone is on the street. Even with the Ordinance’s precedent to make landlords accept ERAP, lease non-renewals continue to be served, such as in K’s case.

To corporate landlords, a tenant receiving ERAP, Section 8, etc. is a risky investment. Affordable housing is a landlord’s game—risky tenants are easily replaced. Since the end of the federal eviction moratorium, Collier has been responsible for 25 percent of all Alachua County’s evictions. Landlords like Collier have no reason to accept housing vouchers willingly, so we have to turn to the City to enforce.

We ultimately are asking for the City to do more to protect low-income tenants. We are demanding proactive enforcement of the Ordinance. The City’s current mechanism of enforcement is the Office of Equity and Inclusion but they have only seen three complaints in a year with regard to source-of-income, far less than what we field in a week. We demand the City proactively make it impossible to not accept ERAP and housing vouchers to keep current tenants housed, and that the City facilitate making discrimination complaints easier to file with the Office of Equity and Inclusion through targeted outreach.

We demand proactive action to protect tenants’ rights against corporate landlords because we believe that Housing is a Human Right.

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