Opinion

Section 8 participation should be landlord's choice, not Kirkland's

Gregory Cerbana - Contributed
Gregory Cerbana
— image credit: Contributed

In a recent column entitled “City’s proposed Section 8 measure would prohibit discrimination,” the Director for the City of Kirkland’s Planning and Community Development Department outlined the foundation for the city’s desire to enact such a piece of legislation.

While the article does a good job of describing the issues that led to the decision to ask for public input, it fails to make an adequate argument and provide support as to why the city should take this action. In fact, the categorization of a private landlord’s decision whether to participate or not in the Section 8 program as “discrimination” is inflammatory and misses the point.

Let me be clear, as a person who has worked in the housing industry for close to two decades, my issue with this proposed ordinance is not rooted in any sort of opposition to the actual Section 8 program. In fact, I support this federally funded and locally directed program that assists low-income families by subsidizing a portion of their monthly rent payments.

At its core, the intent of the program is easy to get behind as it helps those persons and families who live and work within our community.

However, there are three main points that I would like to discuss that form the basis of my opposition to this proposal.

1) Voluntary versus compulsory participation:

Participation in the Section 8 program from a private property owner should be voluntary and a choice that he or she enters into without a city mandate.

As I have indicated at both public meetings that the city held in recent months, the overriding issue that concerns landlords is the intrusion of a third party (in this case, the City of Kirkland) into what should be a decision by a private property owner as to whether or not to participate in a government program that puts restrictions upon the best and highest use of their property. A local government should not force private landlords to participate in a program that is optional at the federal level and that has requirements and obligations to which some landlords have legitimate objections.

In essence, since the city has zero control over the rules and regulations that affect the program, they should not be in a position to mandate participation and take this choice away from the individual property owner.

If educated on the merits of the program, and if it fits into their overall business strategy, many private property owners choose to voluntarily participate in the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program. The company that I work for, Weidner Apartment Homes, has its corporate headquarters here in Kirkland and has been a housing provider for more than 36 years.

We have a long history of participating in the program as two-thirds of our properties in Washington state provide apartments for Section 8 voucher holders. I don’t think that we’re unique in the field, but are proof that when given the choice, landlords can and do participate of their own accord.

2) Disparate impacts to the smaller housing providers:

The economic effect on landlords will vary and it may have a disparate impact on the smaller housing provider. The program can be one of the most effective means of addressing the need for affordable housing as it allows families to choose their home and helps reduce the concentration of low cost housing.

However, participation in the program comes at a cost to landlords of which some may not be able to financially absorb. Chief among these concerns are the inspections that are required prior to occupancy, and the extended timeframes for inspection scheduling and completion that can and do happen. The requirement for an inspection is not a bad thing.

However, when it takes an extended period of time to complete, it becomes an unreasonable burden to the landlord who owns a few rentals and relies upon the rent they collect to make the mortgage payment. While some may hear this and rightly comment that at least after the initial month, rents settle into a predictable payment pattern, this is of little comfort to the property owner who is struggling to carry the mortgage.

In addition, while it used to be the practice of the Housing Authority to help offset move out costs for things such as past due rent balances or utilities, and damages to the apartment above and beyond the security deposit, they no longer do so. It is the responsibility of the landlord to try and collect these monies, and the damages can often be thousands of dollars.

What would be unique in Kirkland if this measure were to pass, is the city would be compelling a private landlord to take a higher risk with a resident who doesn’t have the discretionary pay to allow them to compensate the landlord if any damages were to occur, or balances left at move out.

3) If enacted, this measure will NOT increase the number of affordable rental units within the city:

Most importantly, and what has not been discussed is that if enacted, the measure would not increase the available number of affordable housing units within the city.

This is because Section 8 does not set the rental rates that individual landlords charge. They only set limits on how much they will pay.

Affordable housing is an issue on the Eastside due to many factors. The King County Housing Authority acknowledged this when they correctly agreed to increase the maximum rental rates that they would allow above the rates from other submarkets within the county.

But that doesn’t mean  individual landlords have to lower rents. As Mr. Shields acknowledges in his article, “Any property that has rents higher than the rent limits established by the King County Housing Authority would not be required to lower rents to make units available to Section 8 participants.”

This statement underscores the point that the proposal in front of the council will do nothing to increase the actual number of affordable housing units within Kirkland.

Tenant advocates have claimed that by requiring landlords to participate in the Section 8 program, we’ll see a flood of new housing options for prospective low-income applicants. This is simply not true.

A more comprehensive manner to address the problem of affordability is for the Planning Department to work with developers to create more affordable housing options. These options would provide developer incentives that would enable the project and also acknowledge the city’s vested interest  in the size, scale and scope of any project within their boundaries.

Most recently, the city is embroiled in a lawsuit with a private developer over his plans to develop his property. The issues of density are a real and compelling issue for the city to be involved in.

Yet, the lower the number of units that are created on a parcel of land, the higher the costs are to develop, and the more that must be charged for rent in order to recoup the capital outlay. If the idea is to increase the affordability of living within the city, then increased density has to be addressed.

Private landlords make legitimate, difficult business decisions every day. They decide which properties to acquire, what the rental amount should be for a unit, which supplier to hire, and which applicant to accept as a resident. Private landlords also make a decision whether to participate in the federal Section 8 program. Some landlords participate and some do not. This should be their choice.

Gregory K. Cerbana is the director of public relations for Weidner Apartment Homes, a privately-owned and operated real estate company that specializes in multifamily housing, and designated as one of the top 50 Largest US Apartment Owners as of January 2012, according to the NMHC. He is also a founding board member and past president of the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association.

 

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