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Politics & Government

Pittsburgh Section 8 Discrimination Ordinance Is Before PA's Supreme Court This Week

Election 2020 Pennsylvania
Julio Cortez/AP
A general view of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center is seen Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

After a years-long court battle, a case before Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court this week could have a big impact on affordable housing in Pittsburgh for tenants who rely on subsidized housing vouchers and landlords.

At issue is an ordinance passed by Pittsburgh City Council in 2015 forbidding landlords in the city from discriminating against tenants based on “source of income,” such as a Housing Choice Voucher, commonly referred to as a Section 8 voucher. Shortly after the ordinance passed, the Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh filed suit and the law has never been enforced.

Vouchers allow low-income tenants to rent a house or apartment on the private rental market. Generally, a tenant pays roughly one-third of their income toward the rent, and a government subsidy makes up the rest. However, many landlords won’t accept the vouchers and say they don’t want to deal with the bureaucracy and home inspections that come with accepting them. Those who do take them are often located in lower-income areas, further concentrating poverty and a lack of opportunity for residents.

“The City strives to make Pittsburgh a livable and affordable city for all residents,” city attorneys wrote in a legal filing. “Affordable housing for all Pittsburgh families is one of the City’s goals and part of its local governance agenda. The City made a determination that one of the key ways in which housing is provided to low-income tenants in the City is through housing subsidies, the most well-known of which is the Housing Choice Voucher Program.”

However, as many as 41% of individuals who are issued vouchers must return them unused, due to the refusal of landlords to accept the vouchers, according to one city court filing. (That phenomenon has also been documented elsewhere.) The city has also argued discrimination against voucher-holders is often a proxy for discrimination based on race, national origin, or familial status. The city has also said the state’s Second Class City Code and Home Rule Law, which regulate what laws Pittsburgh can pass, allow for this type of regulation.

There’s roughly 5,400 vouchers in use, according to statistics from the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. About 85% of voucher-holders in Pittsburgh are Black, according to HACP.

The Apartment Association has said the city’s actions aren’t legal and impose too much regulation on businesses, in violation of state law. Requiring landlords to participate in the Section 8 program would impose burdensome requirements for property owners, such as mandating they submit their lease to the Housing Authority for approval, agree to the Housing Authority’s timeline for rent increases, submit various forms of identification for a government-mandated background check, and numerous other requirements, according to court filings by the Association. The Apartment Association has more than 200 members that own or manage about 30,000 residential rental units in the city, according to legal filings.

There aren’t local statistics on how often voucher discrimination happens, said Jam Hammond, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Commission on Human Relations. The agency doesn’t collect this data because voucher holders aren’t currently protected by the law, but anecdotally, they know it is a problem, he said.

What we hear from people who are serving, people who have housing needs is that this is kind of a constant problem,” Hammond said.

Megan Confer-Hammond (no relation to Jam Hammond), executive director of the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh, said if the law were upheld it would represent a “new era” for fair housing in the city.

In Pennsylvania, both State College and Philadelphia have enacted source of income protection laws similar to what Pittsburgh passed, according to a friend of the court brief filed by housing advocates to bolster the city’s case.

The issue has been in court for years. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph James ruled against the city in 2018; the city appealed to Commonwealth Court. In 2019, that court upheld the lower court’s ruling, saying the city’s ordinance put “affirmative duties, responsibilities or requirements on private businesses and employers.” The city appealed again. The state Supreme Court vacated the initial Commonwealth Court order and returned it to that court for consideration again in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Assoc. v City of Pittsburgh, which upheld the city’s ordinance requiring employers to provide paid sick days to workers. In March 2020, the Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of the Apartment Association again; the city appealed again.

This time, the case is being heard with the backdrop of the mayor’s race in which affordable housing issues have loomed large. Incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto is facing challenges from several fellow Democrats. The need for more affordable housing in the city has been a theme of challenger State Rep. Ed Gainey, though he did not mention this lawsuit in the affordable housing policy agenda he rolled out last month. The primary election is May 18.

State Supreme Court judges are scheduled to hear arguments in the case on Tuesday; it’s unclear when they would issue a ruling.

Neither the city nor the Apartment Association would comment for this story.