The Flagler County Commission on Dec. 2 is expected to hear a proposal to revise the county’s fair housing ordinance, which hasn’t been revised in 30 years.
The existing ordinance was progressive for its time, prohibiting discrimination based on gender, sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, familial status or national origin. And an expansive reading of the terms would not necessarily require them to be further specified: discrimination based on “sex” could mean discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation, not merely one’s biological sex.
But the language of decades-old anti-discrimination ordinances and laws of the sort are again in question: the U.S. Supreme Court this term will decide a case that hinges on the definition of “sex.” So clarifying decades-old language and adding new language to reflect contemporary concerns is driving the latest revisions. In Flagler, the revisions would also better align the county with its new focus on affordable housing, says Sandra Shanks, who chairs the county’s Affordable Housing Committee, where the new ordinance was drafted.
The proposed revisions would further specify prohibitions against discrimination based on sex, including “sexual orientation” (meaning gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and so on) and including gender identity (meaning transgender people or people who don;t identiofy with one sex or another). The housing ordinance would thus become Flagler’s first ordinance to specify all LGBTQ individuals as a protected class.
The proposed revisions would also add protection status for veterans and would make discrimination based on anyone’s source of income illegal. That means landlords could not prohibit someone from renting just because that tenant has a Section 8 voucher–or if the tenant’s income is derived from Social Security or disability income.
And the revisions would create new but limited protections for people with criminal issues, or people who have been the victims of domestic violence.
“Everybody has to have a place to live, so how do we provide everybody a place to live without violating a basic right and protecting the citizenry?” Shanks says. “The goal of this ordinance is to make people aware of fair housing, to make tenants aware of their protections from certain discrimination and to make property managers aware that blanket policies. By having blanket policies they can expose themselves to a fair housing violation as well.”
Such blanket, discriminatory policies by landlords and property managers are not uncommon, says Ralston Reodica, the county’s State Housing Initiative Partnership administrator. That’s what the “source of income” protection in the proposed ordinance is intended to address. “Source of income is a big one because a lot of property managers and owners say, No Section 8,” Reodica says. “So that’s what we’re trying to do: you can’t discriminate based on the source of income, whether it’s disability income, a Section 8 voucher, other forms of non-traditional income. We’ve seen in the ads, it’s explicit: ‘No Section 8.’ How is that legal?”
The proposal’s wording regarding “victims of domestic violence, dating violence or stalking” has drawn particular attention, especially from Trish Giaccone, who directs the Family Life Center, the county’s shelter for victims of sexual and physical violence.
When the affordable housing committee voted on the proposed ordinance in October, the language did not include protections for victims of domestic violence. That means a landlord could evict a person, even a victim, whose issues with domestic violence are perceived as disruptive or dangerous to neighbors. Giaccone says that sort of thing does happen.
The day after the provision’s rejection at the affordable housing committee, Giaccone appeared before the Public Safety Coordinating Council–the monthly gathering of law enforcement, judicial, social service and county officials–to decry the possibility that the county could be approving an updated anti-discrimination ordinance without protection for victims of domestic violence.
“It’s sad to know that in our community, there are landlords who will not rent to victims of domestic violence, because they don’t want that potential issue of crime, of disruption to the other neighbors,” Giaccone said, describing how victims will not call 911 for fear of attracting undue attention to themselves in their housing complex. “And the reality is, we are not supporting survivors if we’re saying that, we’re not supporting victims who come forward. So they’re not reaching out to law enforcement, because they don’t want cop cars in the front because they don’t want the neighbors to know, because they don’t want to have issues of staying in that home or having to find another home.”
Giaccone continued: “So I implore you if you are a landlord in this community, please consider that, consider who you’re renting to, and recognize that families that have just left the situation are looking for independence and they need our help. They’re going to pay rent. It’s just we don’t want them discriminated against because of this situation. Particularly when we have protections in place for criminal history. If we’re going to protect those with criminal histories, it would only be right to protect victims, to be equitable.”
Since the October meeting of the housing committee, however, the proposed language of the ordinance has been changed–apparently, despite the vote of the committee saying otherwise–and does include protection for victims of domestic violence. If that’s the version going before the County Commission, Giaccone said today, she’s supportive of the ordinance. “I was sent a draft and in the draft he’s included it,” she said, referring to the inclusion of protection for victims. Otherwise, Giaccone said she intends to make her voice heard before the commission when the item is up for a pair of hearing, possibly as earl;y as Dec. 2 for a first reading.
Ironically, Shanks says, the 1990 ordinance was not in need of vast revisions. “Considering that Flagler County was the last county to integrate in the state of Florida, we were very impressed with the fact that the housing ordinance was as progressive as it is,” Shanks said. “This document from 1990 is extremely valuable but it was hidden. It was hidden. And so I think that as a result of us revisiting it, we’re bringing to light something that can continue to place Flagler County on the map of sorts.” She said the county is “continuing to move in a more progressive direction” with housing affordability. “So when we sat down to revisit it we really didn’t have to add a lot. We just specified some things a little bit more.”
Shanks stressed that absent these revisions, the county won’t be able to pull off its hopes of addressing affordable housing and homelessness more comprehensively and fairly.