Council Bans Preferred Employer Rent Discounts

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This afternoon, with surprisingly little pushback, the city council adopted a bill sponsored by freshman council member Lisa Herbold banning source-of-income discrimination (in brief, barring landlords from discriminating against potential tenants whose income comes from government-funded assistance programs such as Social Security) that also included a provision banning “preferred employer” discounts, like free rent or no-deposit move-in specials, to renters who work at certain companies (typically large tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft).

Is Herbold—former aide to Nick Licata, ex-Tenants Union advocate, go-to encyclopedia of landlord-tenant law—poised to rewrite city rental regulations in a way that her former boss neither did nor could?

Herbold, an iconoclastic city hall veteran (17 years at Licata’s office) who toes the John Fox anti-displacement line on some issues but is far less doctrinaire than her detractors insist, has seen pushback when she’s tried to tinker too much with city dollars (her proposal to set aside a percentage of the city’s general fund for affordable housing bonds ran into skepticism from the council’s fiscal conservatives) or zoning laws (a recent anti-displacement amendment to the mayor’s HALA plan was changed to be less punitive for housing developers). But her proposals to change landlord-tenant law are well-reasoned and hard to challenge (landlords’ main criticism was the one Johnson and Juarez raised), and her early successes suggest that now that she’s actually in charge, instead of behind the scenes as Licata’s right-hand woman, Herbold may be the most effective renters’ advocate on the council since Judy Nicastro.

Is Herbold—former aide to Nick Licata, ex-Tenants Union advocate, go-to encyclopedia of landlord-tenant law—poised to rewrite city rental regulations in a way that her former boss neither did nor could?

Even if that proves optimistic, renters can certainly cheer the legislation the council passed unanimously today, which eliminates several avenues for landlords to discriminate.

The preferred employer discounts were particularly insidious, because they didn’t look like discrimination. But even if they didn’t explicitly say “young, unattached, high-income white men wanted,” the ads were widely viewed as discriminatory because they gave preferential treatment to people who fit that demographic. In essence, preferred employer discounts serve as a dog whistle for a certain type of renter, telling those potential renters that their money is better than others’.

Council members did raise a few alarms today, and the whole program will be subject to an audit in 18 months. In the morning council briefing, council member Debora Juarez expressed concern that the proposal might contradict the city’s efforts to encourage people to live near transit, wondering if it might send a message to landlords not to build “transit-oriented housing.” In the afternoon’s full council meeting, Juarez and her fellow council freshman Rob Johnson raised concerns about another provision of the bill, known as the “first-in-time” amendment, which would require landlords to rent to the first person who qualifies, rather than deciding based on other, potentially discriminatory, criteria; they worried that the provision might have the unintended consequence of privileging people with Internet access and cars, who could get their applications in faster than other potential tenants. (Juarez said that a “lottery” for available apartments might be more fair.)

The bill also requires landlords to accept payment vouchers from community-based organizations instead of evicting tenants who fall a few days behind on their rent, as long as the groups pay the rent in cash within five days.

Last year, when I interviewed her before the general election, Herbold told me eliminating preferred employer provisions was one of her top priorities, because she believed that “preferential practices for some result in discriminatory outcomes for others.” Less than eight months into her term, she can check that one off her list.

One thought on “Council Bans Preferred Employer Rent Discounts”

  1. I always hated those preferred employer discounts and fee/deposit waivers. They did them back east too, so when I came out here I wasn’t surprised, but I definitely still felt it was kinda shitty.

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