CHAMPAIGN – The Champaign City Council is being urged to change its human rights ordinance to effectively require that city landlords must accept Section 8 rent subsidies from low-income people.
A three-member subcommittee of the Champaign Human Relations Commission unanimously recommended Thursday that the human rights ordinance should be amended to specify that federal Section 8 payments are considered a source of income and that landlords can't discriminate against people seeking to rent an apartment or house by using a Section 8 voucher as payment.
The recommendation, which would be made to the city council, will be considered by the full human relations commission at its Dec. 5 meeting.
Both Champaign and Urbana prohibit discrimination in housing in their human rights ordinances, and they also protect against discrimination based on source of income.
For some two decades, that was interpreted to mean that Champaign-Urbana landlords could not reject potential renters simply on the basis that they receive Section 8.
But in 2001, the city of Champaign filed a complaint on behalf of a woman, Bettina Chapman, who had sought to rent an apartment using a Section 8 voucher from Royse & Brinkmeyer Apartments. The Champaign-based firm had told Chapman that they do not participate in the Section 8 program.
The case went before a hearing officer, Champaign attorney Catherine Barbercheck, who ruled on June 4, 2001, that Royse & Brinkmeyer's refusal to participate in Section 8 was not sufficient to show discrimination based on source of income.
The city's human relations commission then voted to accept the ruling.
Chapman then appealed the commission's decision in Champaign County Circuit Court, but the commission's decision was upheld, according to Tricia Crowley, Champaign's deputy city attorney.
The hearing officer's ruling and the commission's acceptance of it effectively meant that the city of Champaign no longer protected Section 8 recipients from being turned away by landlords.
The issue resurfaced in September after Esther Patt, coordinator of the University of Illinois Tenant Union, brought to the commission's attention an August 2004 decision by the First District appellate court in Chicago.
In the case, a three-judge panel found that a landlord had violated Chicago's fair housing ordinance because the landlord refused to rent to a Section 8 recipient.
The Chicago ordinance prohibited discrimination based on "source of income," but did not specifically mention Section 8.
Crowley said the First District case covers the entire state unless there is a contradictory appellate ruling elsewhere in Illinois, which she said does not appear to be the case.
Patt said she believes that the human relations commission had the option of rejecting Barbercheck's ruling in 2001, but was not adequately informed of that option.
The Urbana City Council in January 1996 voted to include Section 8 as a source of income in its human rights ordinance, Patt said, which the subcommittee is now asking the Champaign council to do.
"The irony of it all is the reason for replacing public housing with Section 8 was to eliminate the concentration of the poor," Patt said. "But discrimination against people with Section 8 reconcentrates the poor at places that don't discriminate."
Patt quizzed Crowley during Thursday's subcommittee meeting whether simply a finding by the human relations commission that Section 8 is a source of income would be sufficient. She asked whether the city council needed to consider the issue.
But Crowley said she wasn't sure the human relations commission could direct city community relations staff to begin considering Section 8 a source of income when complaints are filed.
"Whether you could direct staff and say they have to do that, that's a different question," Crowley said. "Staff reports to the city manager and the city manager answers to the city council."
An explicit mention of Section 8 as a protected source of income in the city's human rights ordinance would be much clearer, she said.