AG’s Sting Hits Property Management Over Rejecting Veterans Vouchers

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The Editors's picture
AG’s Sting Hits Property Management Over Rejecting Veterans Vouchers

Eight Washington State property management companies have been charged with improperly rejecting disabled veterans vouchers after a sting operation, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a release.

Some landlords and property management companies have pushed back saying they were confused by conflicting information from the state and never intended to discriminate against veterans vouchers or veterans..

Ferguson said completion of a sweep to crack down on illegal housing discrimination against veterans with disabilities, has resulted in enforcement action against eight companies across the state.

As part of the enforcement action, the eight companies will stop discriminating.

“Veterans are protected from discrimination by Washington law,” Ferguson said in the release.

 

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson

 “No veteran should be denied a roof over their head based on how they plan to pay their rent.”

A signal to landlords to know the law on veterans vouchers

Ferguson told the Seattle Times his investigation was intended to signal to landlords to accept the veterans vouchers.

“Part of why we do this,” Ferguson said, “is also partly to communicate to the industry what the law is.”

Property management companies rejected veterans vouchers

The Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit investigation, which began in 2016, uncovered property management companies around the state that were improperly rejecting Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers. Eight of those companies entered into agreements with the Attorney General’s Office to end their discrimination and consider VASH vouchers as payment.

His team sent out emails to 50 random landlords posing as veterans and asking to rent using the voucher. Ten of those landlords responded by saying, we do not accept those - just a blanket denial, according to reports.

 "A blanket denial is outrageous," Ferguson told Military.com. "It is also illegal."

VASH is a joint program between the U.S. departments of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) and Veterans Affairs (VA). The program offers veterans vouchers for housing combined with VA support services for veterans who have a disability, including a serious mental illness, a history of substance abuse disorder or a physical disability.

The veterans vouchers are similar to Section 8 vouchers, but include case management and clinical services from the Department of Veterans Affairs for veterans who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless.

The Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) prohibits housing practices that discriminate on the basis of disability or veteran status. In addition, the legislature is currently considering changing state law to prohibit property managers from discriminating against any potential tenant based on their source of income, including whether they receive housing vouchers or subsidies.

Landlords frustrated with state’s approach

Rowley Properties issued a statement saying, “When we were first made aware of VASH vouchers, we inquired of the state’s own responsible agency whether the vouchers were mandatory or not and were told expressly that they were not; they were purely optional -- a landlord may accept or not accept.  And because these vouchers come with a lot of 'red tape' and restrictions for property owners which are not in the interests of the residents, we opted not to participate given we only manage 85 apartment units. 

“Our intention was never to discriminate.  When we were told by the AG that our declination of a VASH voucher allegedly violated the law, we made the state aware that we had consulted with their own housing agency and been told the vouchers were optional. The AG did not seem to care.  Even while the matter was pending, we again contacted the appropriate state agency and were again advised that the vouchers were optional and the property owner could choose to accept or not accept.  This still did not make a difference to the AG’s office. 

“As the matter proceeded, we shared with the AG’s office there was a lot of genuine confusion among property owners in our state, like us, who wanted to do the right thing but were unsure what that was because the rules, especially as to the voucher, were definitely unclear. Their own agencies were giving contrary information saying the vouchers were optional.  We expressed to the state that it made more sense to add clarity to rectify the situation rather than to fine people.  They did not seem to care. 

“When we offered, in writing, to take positive steps to help educate the industry on a wide scale, through publications and meetings (which we would perform freely for the state), they showed zero interest in this offer.  They only were interested in penalizing, fining, and now we see, issuing a wide-reaching press release.  The reason we entered into the agreement was to avoid time-consuming costly litigation.  As stated in the agreement with the state: “Nothing in this Assurance of Discontinuance constitutes or may be construed as an admission of liability by Rowley Properties as to the assertions of the State of Washington.  Rowley Properties denies having knowingly or intentionally engaged in the practices alleged and asserts that its actions were consistent with its understanding of federal policy and information from the Public Housing Authority,” Rowley Properties said in the statement.

“As good corporate citizens, we chose to resolve the matter rather than engage in years of arduous litigation as we have customers and tenants who come first, we have a business to run and employees to whom we are responsible,” Rowley said in the statement. “We are committed to hiring the best people, including veterans. In fact, we have several former military who are employees of the company.  Veterans have lived and continue to live in our apartments.  We followed all the rental practices recommended in Fair Housing/Landlord Tenant Law and the express recommendations of the appropriate State agencies administering housing programs.”

Landlords voice frustration over lack of communication on veterans vouchers issue

The eight housing providers entering into the agreement provide housing in five Washington counties, including Walla Walla, Spokane, King, Thurston and Benton.

Broker Miles Scruggs told the Union Bulletin that Welcome Home Properties LLC operates about 180 rentals and took issue with the Attorney General’s characterization of the practice as discriminatory, but he was primarily frustrated with the state’s approach, which he said was unnecessarily aggressive and was not preceded by any notice.

“There wasn’t any communication or any kind of guideline that even remotely suggested that it was a mandatory kind of program,” Scruggs told the newspaper. “This could have been so simple. They could have published an opinion that said that ‘we feel that every owner has to accept HUD VASH veterans vouchers.’”

Scruggs estimated that between eight and 10 of Welcome Home’s local property-owner clients who were eligible to accept veteran’s housing vouchers, or the wider-reaching Section 8 vouchers, had elected not to take them.

“We do take veterans vouchers on some properties, and on some properties ... the owners just told us, ‘Hey, I don’t want the housing authority involved,’” Scruggs said.

Local Housing Authority Director Renee Rooker echoed Scruggs’ concerns.

“The two they cited, for quite a long period of time, were accepting homeless veterans,” she told the Union-Bulletin. “It had nothing to do with the VASH programs. They got burned several times and so went down this path of ‘nope, we’re not going to do that anymore.’ That doesn’t mean they won’t come back. It’s just that they got burned.”

The Housing Authority provides vouchers to VASH applicants after they apply through the Department of Veterans Affairs and pass screenings for income eligibility, drug use and sex-offender registrations.

Jason Celski a U.S. Air Force veteran who runs a law practice and property management firm in Kennewick, told Military.com that an employee who fielded the inquiry from investigators did not realize it was for a veteran and that the message referred to VASH by the acronym, not its full name.

After follow-up, eight of the companies, including Celski, agreed to amend their policies.

Veterans vouchers they cannot use

AG’s Sting Hits Property Management Over Rejecting Veterans Vouchers

One of the persistent problems in ending veteran homelessness is when homeless veterans have a voucher in hand but are unable to redeem it for housing, Leo Flor, King County’s manager of the Veterans, Seniors and Human Services levy and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, told the Seattle Times.

Flor attributes that gap partly to discrimination against veterans, or landlords’ concerns about credit or criminal history.

Utah and Colorado management companies also cited

Attorney General Ferguson’s sweep revealed two additional corporate housing providers — Utah-based Apartment Management Consultants LLC and Colorado-based Mission Rock Residential LLC — that also refused to accept VASH veterans vouchers.

To date, however, these two companies have refused to enter into an agreement with the Attorney General’s Office to end their discriminatory practice.

Both companies refused to accept the VASH voucher, despite knowing that the voucher assisted a veteran with a disability in paying his or her rent. They asked no additional questions about whether the prospective tenant otherwise met the properties’ rental criteria.

Apartment Management Consultants manages 24 residential rental properties in 10 cities in Washington, including the HighGrove and Wildreed apartments in Everett. Among Mission Rock’s 13 properties in nine Washington cities are the Lakeside Landing Apartments in Tacoma and Sierra Sun in Puyallup.

Proposed law would ban failure to rent based on source of income

Ferguson has informed both corporations that he will bring an enforcement action against them alleging violations of the Washington Law Against Discrimination if HB 2578, sponsored by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, does not pass this session.

HB 2578 prohibits landlords from refusing to rent property to a tenant based on their source of income, including VASH vouchers and other forms of subsidy. The bill, which Attorney General Ferguson supported, recently passed the House with bipartisan support, 61-37, and sits in the Senate Rules Committee.

A nearly identical bill, Senate Bill 5407, sponsored by Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, passed the Senate with bipartisan support.

The eight companies who changed their conduct are:

  • KPS Realty LLC (Spokane)
  • Domus Urbis LLC (Spokane)
  • Celski & Associates Inc. (Kennewick)
  • Country Homes Realty LLC (Spokane)
  • Rowley Properties Inc. (Issaquah)
  • TJ Cline LLC (Walla Walla)
  • Welcome Home Properties LLC (Walla Walla)
  • Yelm Creek Apartments LLC (Yelm)

The Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit works to protect the rights of all Washington residents by enforcing state and federal anti-discrimination laws. It is named for Wing Luke, who served as an Assistant Attorney General for the state of Washington in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  He went on to become the first person of color elected to the Seattle City Council and the first Asian-American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest.

Resources:

Disabled Vets Will Find It Easier to Rent Homes after Statewide Sting

Washington signals to landlords: Denying homeless veterans housing is illegal

Rowley Properties response to discrimination charge

State AG Says Washington Landlords Illegally Refused to Rent to Veterans

HUD-VASH Eligibility Criteria

Two Walla Walla-area rental companies rebuked for discrimination against veterans

Washington State Attorney General: Housing Discrimination Against Veterans Is Evident

Veterans Seeking Housing Turned Away

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program

HUD-VASH resource guide

 

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