Austin's Source of Income ordinance heads to federal court

A federal judge will make a decision in the next couple of weeks whether to grant an injunction against Austin's source of income ordinance.

Judge Sam Sparks listened to testimony and evidence from both sides for several hours Monday during a preliminary injunction hearing. He did not issue a ruling but said he would grant the injunction if the city starts to enforce the new ordinance before he has a chance to issue his decision.

In December, the old city council passed the ordinance requiring landlords to accept Section 8 housing vouchers. Not long after the ordinance passed the Austin Apartment Association filed a lawsuit against the city. Craig Enoch represents the Austin Apartment Association.

"We asked for a hearing to present evidence and stop the enforcement and effective date until the judge has the time to hear the merits," said Enoch. Enoch argued in court that the source of income ordinance is burdensome to landlords and there are true costs associated with accepting the vouchers.

"It's not that we have anything against the voucher or the person that is a recipient of the voucher, it's the program itself. It's the big book of regulations and rules that we would have to agree to and contract with the government," said Robbie Robinson, the president of the Austin Apartment Association, in a statement.

Enoch laid out the case for potential delays with inspections and how the federal government's contract supersedes anything that the landlord and tenant sign.

"There are Texas Supreme Court cases from 100 years ago that say the right to contract involves the right to not contract so landlords and tenants are free to negotiate their leases all day long," said Enoch.

Attorneys for the city argue that the city's goal is to increase housing choices and the ordinance is just one way of doing that. Currently 5,700 families receive some tenant-based rental assistance. City employees testified that the city doesn't receive enough money from the federal government to pay for vouchers for all of the people who are on the wait list.

In the fall the city received 19,000 applications for housing vouchers and of that held a lottery to get that number down to 2,500 who are not on the wait list.

"I think it's a good thing," said Isabelle Headrick who is the executive director of Accessible Housing Austin. Headrick serves as a landlord who accepts section 8 housing vouchers and testified during the hearing. She sees the need for the ordinance.

"I receive phone calls from people who are turned away by dozens of landlords even though they have demonstrated the ability to pay the rent that those landlords are asking for and to me is someone can pay the rent and they have a history of being a good tenant and if they want to live in your place then I don't see why they should be treated differently from people who pay the rent a different way," said Headrick.

Judge Sparks told both sides the issue is troubling and it's like the city is bullying property owners. This issue will also be taken up at the capitol. State Senator Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, has filed a bill to ensure business owners have the freedom to choose whether or not to accept federal housing vouchers as a form of payment for rent.