The home Sasha Williams has shared with her two young daughters since January didn’t come easy. It seemed like every time she scraped together the money the leasing agent asked for, they tacked on another fee. The modern apartment building stands in stark contrast to the century-old rowhouses that surround it. Speakers embedded in the awning that juts out from its angular façade play the kind of not-quite-mainstream pop music you might hear in one of the new cafes nearby.
A year ago, after more than a decade in and out of shelters to escape domestic violence, Williams had found an apartment in Southeast Washington that accepted her housing voucher, part of the Department of Human Services’ Permanent Supportive Housing program. “I’ve been working on my independence since I was 18,” said the D.C.-area native, now 32.
But gun violence was frequent in the area. With one child and a new baby on the way, Williams wanted to relocate to a safer neighborhood. “I didn’t want nobody telling me and my girls that we don’t deserve to enjoy ourselves and walk outside without thinking ‘I’m about to get shot,’” she recalled.
Moving to a more secure home for her young family proved difficult. Despite having a reliable source of income in the form of a government voucher, Williams faced a series of barriers in her applications for three apartment complexes in the H Street Corridor and Navy Yard areas. Vouchers do not cover standard application fees or the $500 “convenience fees” she had to pay at each location.
The D.C. Human Rights Act outlaws discrimination on the basis of income source for housing, employment and education. When Williams was initially rejected from the building where she now lives, she reached out to the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. After an attorney informed the management company of the Human Rights Act’s anti-discrimination protections, Williams reapplied and was approved to move in. “I want to be able to just live — I want peace and happiness,” Williams said, cradling her youngest while her 5-year-old daughter bounced around what the building’s website calls the Chill Lounge.
The Human Rights Act’s protections helped Williams to break the cycle of instability and poverty for herself and her children, according to her social worker, Julie Turner. “Sasha’s life got delayed,” Turner said, “now the fun part can start.”
Anti-discrimination legislation stalls in D.C. Council
Williams is one of hundreds of District residents forced to rely on these protections each year. Statistics on the number of cases resolved informally, like hers, are not available. However, in the past three fiscal years for which data are public, the D.C. Office of Human Rights docketed 664, 633, and 504 cases respectively alleging unlawful discrimination. Yet advocates for the homeless community say many unhoused people don’t make a good enough match with the list of protected traits, such as place of residence, source of income and personal appearance, and they remain unprotected.
Several local and national homeless rights organizations have lobbied in recent years to add a new protected trait to the Human Rights Act, “homeless status.” The effort drew on a 2014 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless and George Washington University, which found widespread discrimination against homeless individuals surveyed in the nation’s capital.
This led At-large Councilmember David Grosso to co-introduce the Michael A. Stoops Anti-Discrimination Amendment Act last July. The legislation, named for a leading advocate of the bill who died just weeks before its introduction, was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety and has seen no action for the past nine months.
There are currently 20 protected traits under the law, the most recent a prohibition against employment discrimination based on credit information, added last October. Housing discrimination based on credit remains lawful in D.C.
Proponents of the bill argue that while existing protections can respond to some discrimination against unhoused people, a specific prohibition of homelessness-based discrimination is needed.
In anti-discrimination lawsuits, “source of income and other categories are often proxies for what the real category of discrimination is,” explained Lori Leibowitz, a staff attorney who coordinates the Right to Housing Initiative at the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in D.C. “At this moment it is perfectly legal for someone to decide ‘I don’t want to hire this person’ or ‘I don’t want to rent to this person’ because they’re homeless.”
The existing protected traits are rarely used in any Human Rights Act complaints, according to Ann Marie Staudenmaier, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, “despite the fact that discrimination against persons experiencing homelessness in D.C. is rampant.”
Of the 664 cases docketed with the Office of Human Rights in fiscal year 2016, the most recent period for which data are available, only 20 cited source of income, 15 cited personal appearance, and just a single case cited place of residence.
The committee’s chair, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, has not publicly addressed the bill. According to advocates who have discussed the matter with his staff, Allen believes the existing protections are sufficient and is concerned the legislation could increase the already heavy caseload at the Office of Human Rights.
After more than a month of requests for an interview with Councilmember Allen to discuss the bill’s nuances and potential implications, his staff provided a short statement: “Councilmember Allen agrees with the bill’s intent to reduce barriers for individuals experiencing homelessness in housing, employment, public accommodations and educational institutions but does not have a hearing scheduled on this proposal at this time.”
The bill was co-introduced or co-sponsored by seven councilmembers, including three of the five that sit on the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, a committee member who also co-introduced the bill, reiterated her support in a statement to Street Sense Media: “Residents experiencing homelessness routinely face discrimination when working to obtain housing, in seeking medical care, and in securing employment — all circumstances which can help an individual escape chronic homelessness and drastically improve one’s safety and health.”
However, according to Grosso’s communications director, Allen “has sole discretion over what gets brought up for consideration by the committee.” Other councilmembers, when reached for comment, also referred Street Sense Media to Allen’s office.
Despite apparent majority support in D.C. Council and within the committee itself, Allen could choose to let the bill languish until the current council period ends January 2, 2019. According to Josh Gibson, the Council’s public information officer, the fate of a bill in committee could depend on several factors, including perceived ease of passage, its number of co-sponsors, media attention and the timeliness of the issue. “Committees only have so much time to do work,” Gibson explained, “so they need to make decisions on what to examine and when. But only the committee chairs would know how that decision is made for each bill.”
The legislation that added credit information as a protected trait last year took a year and a half to pass a council vote, after being introduced in the summer of 2015. Unlike the Stoops bill, it received a public hearing the January following its introduction. Other items have moved more quickly. For example, Councilmember Robert White’s Office to Affordable Housing Task Force bill was introduced last May and passed a final vote in the council March 6.
Allen’s reticence on the bill could be related to the upcoming June 19 Democratic primary. He faces a challenge from Lisa Hunter, who has staked out a position to his left on homelessness issues. “I fully support immediate passage of [the Stoops bill],” Hunter told Street Sense Media, “and would like to see the law expanded to include explicit protections against encampment sweeps and discriminatory application of loitering laws.”
Meanwhile, Councilmember Grosso has been swamped in his role as Education Committee chair amid the recent series of scandals that has beset D.C. public schools. This may explain his own apparent inaction on the bill he introduced.
Local bill comes amid nationwide push to enshrine homeless rights
When this amendment was introduced last summer, it came amid a wave of homeless rights legislation throughout the United States. Puerto Rico passed a homeless bill of rights in 2007, and Rhode Island became the first state to pass such a bill in 2012, followed the next year by Illinois and Connecticut. Similar legislation is currently under consideration in six more states.
The D.C. bill is unique because it seeks to amend an existing anti-discrimination statute and utilize an established enforcement mechanism, the complaint process within the Office of Human Rights.
[Read more: Grosso introduces landmark civil rights amendment]
One reason for building on an established administrative complaint system is to empower homeless people to represent themselves in a process outside of a courtroom, according to Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “This is an easy legislative remedy to a critical, pervasive, systemic problem,” she said.
Bauman, who advocated for the bill’s introduction, recalls that opponents expressed concern the bill could “open the floodgates” for litigation and overburden the Office of Human Rights. She argues that a potential spike in cases would simply illustrate the need for the amendment. Passage of homeless bills of rights elsewhere in the U.S. has only led to a single ongoing lawsuit, the case of a homeless couple suing the City of Chicago for repeatedly destroying the tents where they live.
Stephanie Franklin, Director of Policy and Communications at the Office of Human Rights, emphasized that while the office takes no position on legislation to expand its mandate, “anything that advances inclusion of all groups within the District is something we would want to uphold.”
She acknowledged a recent spike in the agency’s caseload, which she attributed to increased awareness of the services OHR provides and new laws it must enforce, but insisted, “We are vigorously enforcing the law and getting those cases in and out as fast as we can.”
“D.C. is well positioned to do something about the discrimination that homeless people face in multiple categories,” Bauman said. She views the amendment as smart policy and a great opportunity for the nation’s capital to set an important precedent.
For her part, Allen’s constituent, Sasha Williams, is watching the council’s process skeptically. “I don’t want to judge someone until I meet them,” she said of her representative, “but it’s like, ‘Do you care or not?’”