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House Judiciary deals blow to Section 8 housing nondiscrimination bill

By: - February 8, 2022 9:52 am
View of the dome from the side of the State House

The full House will vote on the bill in the coming weeks. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

A bill to forbid landlords from automatically turning away recipients of Section 8 housing vouchers is facing an uphill battle after the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to recommend it be killed.

Voting 11-10 to recommend the bill be found “inexpedient to legislate,” Republicans on the committee argued the bill would create a burden for landlords who aren’t interested in participating in the Section 8 program.

Democrats countered that the bill was designed to ensure that recipients of Section 8 housing vouchers – also known as the housing choice voucher program – get an equal opportunity to rent an apartment or house. 

Proposed by Rep. Cam Kenney, a Durham Democrat, House Bill 1291 would make the refusal to rent to those in the housing choice voucher program an unlawful discriminatory practice under the state’s human rights statute. That could allow tenants to bring landlords before the Human Rights Commission if they could demonstrate they were turned away for the sole reason of receiving vouchers. 

Kenney and other Democrats pointed to the long backlog families currently face in receiving Section 8 assistance – a wait that ranges from five to nine years. Yet a family or individual that finally receives the assistance has between 30 and 90 days to find an apartment or the money is forfeited.

The tight turnaround means that many housing choice voucher recipients aren’t able to actually use their assistance because they are unable to find landlords to rent to them, advocates say. Sometimes advertisements for properties in the state specify that Section 8 vouchers are not accepted; other times, prospective tenants are told when they call or apply that they are not eligible.

Out of 1,581 vouchers issued by the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority last year, 294 expired, according to data from the agency. 

Democrats argued voucher recipients deserved to be treated equally under the state’s human rights law. And they said the law wouldn’t prevent landlords from rejecting applicants for other reasons, such as poor references or a lack of security deposit. 

“All this bill says is you can’t refuse to rent to me only because I have a voucher,” said Rep. Marjorie Smith, a Durham Democrat. “That’s all. …If you have legitimate reasons not to rent to me, so be it.”

And they noted the bill did not require landlords to rent to tenants if the rent was higher than the maximum rent the voucher would handle. 

“This bill does not force landlords to do anything at all,” Kenney said. “It really just allows voucher holders to get their foot in the door.” 

But Republicans argued the program would effectively force landlords to participate in the federal program or face a discrimination lawsuit, and noted that accepting Section 8 recipients would require meeting federal regulations for housing standards. 

Rep. Joe Alexander, a Goffstown Republican, contended that the new regulations could lead to an increase in the state’s housing shortage.

“This bill (is) well intended, and I understand the need for more housing and protecting those that are vulnerable, but this bill goes too far,” Alexander said. 

Other Republicans argued that the decision by some landlords to avoid the Section 8 program was a failing of the federal program itself, and one that should be addressed by providing an incentive at the federal level. 

“If the program was that attractive, then there would be no need for this legislation,” said Rep. Mark McLean, a Manchester Republican. 

The bill and the committee’s recommendation will move next to the House floor, where lawmakers will take a vote in the coming weeks.

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.

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