A bad bill before the General Assembly would give Ohio landlords greater latitude to discriminate against tenants, threaten federal aid the state needs to enforce fair-housing laws, and weaken other housing rights. Before the November election, Ohio voters would find it useful to know what lawmakers of both parties, Gov. John Kasich, and their challengers think of this measure.
The legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), would reduce and limit financial damages that are designed to punish landlords who discriminate blatantly — against families with children, disabled people, racial and ethnic minorities, and active-duty military personnel and veterans. It would require tenants or would-be tenants who bring bias cases to pay the legal fees of alleged violators if they lack sufficient evidence to prove their case; that burden also would discourage victims of genuine discrimination from asserting their rights.
At the same time, the bill would weaken the enforcement powers of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission to resolve housing disputes administratively. That would force Ohioans to bring bias cases in state or federal court — a costly and cumbersome process for all parties — or to seek redress through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Gutting the state commission in this way would cost it $1 million a year it gets from HUD to investigate complaints of housing bias, hold accountable landlords who discriminate, and settle claims. It would reduce the prospects of voluntary, private, local resolution of complaints.
The measure would curb the ability of private fair-housing agencies to share in money damages assessed against landlords who are found guilty of discrimination. That would remove one of these agencies’ most important tools for pursuing legal challenges to housing bias.
Senator Seitz told Gongwer News Service that opponents fear his measure would “dry up some of their extortion racket of trumping up generally spurious claims of discrimination.” That sneering dismissal won’t wash.
The bill is inconsistent with Republican orthodoxy in that it would force greater, not less, reliance on the federal government to resolve fair-housing issues in Ohio. So much for states’ rights and home rule.
Nor is it likely that Ohio landlords and real-estate investors, whose lobbies support the bill, would get a more-sympathetic hearing from federal housing regulators. Instead, the bill is yet another effort in Columbus to erode civil rights and equal opportunity in the guise of good business, harming tenants as well as landlords who obey the rules.
A half-century ago, Ohio was one of the first states to enact a fair-housing law. Since then, our state has a solid record of leadership on housing issues, during Republican and Democratic administrations. Senator Seitz’s measure would roll back much of this progress, to protect landlords’ misconduct and to play to narrow anti-government prejudices.
The housing bill was introduced just before the summer recess, traditionally a time for lawmakers to try to slip bad business through in the hope that no one is paying attention. Fortunately for Ohioans, fair-housing, legal-aid, and civil-rights groups across the state — including in Toledo — are watching carefully. Voters need to be equally vigilant.