As Ky. bill restricting local control of rental laws moves forward, some question legality

The Kentucky General Assembly is poised to pass legislation that would restrict local governments from enacting local ordinances banning landlords from discriminating against people who use federal housing vouchers.

The Senate on Tuesday voted 25 to 11 to pass House Bill 18, which has already passed the House. The bill was altered in a Senate committee to mirror Senate Bill 25, which also prohibited local governments from enacting local source of income bans. The House must concur with the changes before it is passed.

But housing advocates question the legality of the bill and are concerned the changes will mean landlords can discriminate against anyone who receives funding from the federal government for housing.

“I’m still kind of in disbelief that the legislature would pass something that removes legal protections from people, just because they’re using a voucher,” said Art Crosby, executive director of Lexington Fair Housing, a nonprofit that deals with housing and housing discrimination.

The previous versions of the bill targeted Section 8, now known as Housing Choice, which is a type of voucher lower-income people use to pay all or portions of their rent. The revised bill goes much further and says landlords can’t be forced to take payment “when the person’s lawful source of income to pay rent includes funding from a federal housing assistance program.”

Crosby said the bill is now so broad it means any landlord may be able to turn away veterans, domestic violence survivors, the mentally ill and others who depend on other types of funding to find housing.

“The way I read the plain language of the proposed source of income bill, it means if you have a voucher then a landlord doesn’t have to rent to you ever.. No matter the reason – none of the current civil rights protections would apply to voucher holders,” Crosby said.

That means a Black renter, a person with disabilities or a disabled veteran who uses a voucher can be denied even if that landlord then rents to a white renter with a voucher, Crosby said.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council voted Feb. 15 to enact a local source of income ban. The local effort to do so drove landlords to approach Rep. Ryan Dotson, R-Winchester, and Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, to sponsor bills to stop the measure at the state level.

Louisville has had a source of income ban since 2020.

Local debate on source of income bans

Lexington’s ban on discrimination against people who use other means besides income from employment to pay rent is set to take effect March 1. It won’t take effect if and when House Bill 18 passes.

Lack of landlords willing to take federal housing vouchers and other types of federal housing payments was one of the reasons why Lexington decided to enact an ordinance. Multiple social service providers have said people are waiting for several months to exit shelters and homelessness because they can’t find a landlord willing to take their housing voucher.

Data from the Lexington-Fayette Housing Authority also shows the majority of voucher holders are Black. Yet, recent searches of available rental properties that take federal housing vouchers show those rental properties are largely in the city’s minority neighborhoods.

By banning discrimination against those that have vouchers, the city will be able to undo long-standing segregation in housing, backers of the ban on source of income allege.

Landlords have said they don’t want to be forced to participate in a government program. Housing Choice involves inspections and other regulations. Those regulations can translate to delays and loss of income, landlords have argued.

Jackson Cooper, a housing lawyer with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, said House Bill 18 is a step in the wrong direction as the state faces a housing crisis, particularly in rural areas where new rental housing is scarce.

“We have acknowledged there is a housing crisis,” Cooper said. “We have serious issues with housing and homeless. Louisville passed a source of income discrimination ban now nearly four years ago. It’s not bothered landlords. They are still allowed to choose who they rent to.”

Statewide, renters make up more than 30% of Kentucky residents. In other areas, including Lexington and Louisville, renters make up nearly 50% of the population, according to U.S. Census data.

“It’s moving in the wrong direction at a time when there are many Kentuckians who can’t find housing,” Cooper said.

Moreover, Cooper has heard from renters who have vouchers who can’t get their landlords to fix persistent problems.

Protecting property rights or renters?

During Tuesday’s debate, several senators argued the House Bill 18 would protect landlords’ property rights.

“Left-wing liberals on city councils are dictating landlords should take below market rates,” said Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who represents portions of Fayette County.

Sen. David Yates, D-Louisville, said that’s not what bans on sources of income do. Those bans simply say landlords can’t discriminate against someone who uses a voucher to pay rent. Yates said he is also a landlord.

“This is about discriminatory conduct,” Yates said of source of income bans.

Those who voted against the bill included several Republicans, including Sen. Amanda Mays Beldsoe, R-Lexington, Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Latonia, and Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville.