After several hours of public testimony, a divided Kirkland City Council adopted an ordinance to prevent landlords from rejecting potential rental tenants solely based on the fact that they pay part of their rent with a Section 8 Housing Voucher.
The Section 8 Housing Voucher program is funded by the federal government and administered here by King County Housing Authority to assist low income families, the elderly and the disabled to afford housing in the private market. Section 8 participants pay a percentage of their household income for rent and utilities.
Before the vote, public comment at the hearing foreshadowed the council's division of minds, and for the council, highlighted a potential need to help educate landlords about the program as some of the Section 8 provisions were questioned.
A number of representatives of nonprofit organizations--such as the YWCA, Kirkland Interfaith Transitions in Housing, Hopelink, and Habitat for Humanity--spoke in favor of the ordinance.
Without it, they said, it's difficult for people to find quality housing in the city they work in, that will accept Section 8 tenants because of preconceptions about the program.
Meanwhile, individual property owners, representatives of associations of landlords such as the Rental Housing Association of Washington, and the Houghton Neighborhood Association, argued that the ordinance would place undue burdens on property owners and could ultimately hinder the development of new affordable housing in Kirkland or cause some small owners to sell off their rental houses.
Several of the speakers in opposition spoke of choice as the major issue, citing increased risks that they said should be up to a property owner to decide to take on.
"I think the Section 8 HUD program is great, if it is voluntary," said property owner Brian Tucker.
Others asked the council to consider including an exemption for people who own a very small number of rental properties, a point that was not discussed by council members after the hearing.
Several Kirkland residents who are on the Section 8 program described their lives and their sometimes struggles to find suitable housing because sometimes simply being on the program closes rental office doors to them. One woman who spoke is a teacher who moved to Kirkland to be closer to her daughter and grandchild. Another, an Army veteran who worked for Public Health before being laid off, said access to safe affordable housing has been vital to her as she retrains. She said that for a time, she was forced to live in her storage unit before obtaining assistance.
Council members Penny Sweet, Bob Sternoff, and Toby Nixon voted no, while Mayor Joan McBride, Deputy Mayor Doreen Marchione, and council members Dave Asher and Amy Walen voted yes. Several of the council members on both sides of the issue said they themselves rent out property in the area.
Sweet, in commenting before the vote, decried the apparent bias against people on the program in email comments the council received on the issue. Still, she said, "As a landlord, I should not have to participate in this voluntary program. I don’t think this is the role of city government."
McBride said that she proudly supported the ordinance.
"When people live here and raise their children here, wonderful things happen. I’m not afraid of this ordinance, and I might be if we were the first," she said, but a number of other municipalities have enacted similar rules over the years. McBride added that the goal in the proposal was not to create more affordable housing, but to make current housing accessible to more people. "This was never about growing more housing, it was about preserving and welcoming," she said.
The city of Redmond passed a similar ordinance last year. Seattle, Bellevue, and unincorporated King County already have similar rules, as well.