The city of Atlanta can’t require landlords to accept publicly subsidized rent vouchers, because a 2020 ordinance seeking to mandate just that conflicts with state law, an attorney with expertise in local government told Atlanta Civic Circle on Friday.

The Atlanta law requiring landlords to accept vouchers and other rent subsidies as sources of income came into the fore last week, when City Councilmember Amir Farokhi warned a luxury apartment owner that it can’t refuse tenants’ government-subsidized rent payments.

But EDGE on the Beltline’s owner, real estate company Carter Haston, told Atlanta Civic Circle it isn’t declining renters’ Section 8 vouchers. Rather, a Carter Haston representative said, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stopped paying the bill for tenants at the Old Fourth Ward complex after the firm bought the complex from developer North American Properties in January. HUD did not respond to repeated requests for comment this week.

Farokhi’s letter, which cites the anti-discrimination ordinance, raises the question of whether the “source of income” clause is enforceable, since it conflicts with a state law that bars local municipalities from enforcing fair housing laws that are broader than the state’s, according to one local lawyer focused on government accountability, Matthew Cardinale.

As of Friday, the city was unable to say whether its Human Relations Commission, which determines code violations, has ever received a complaint over landlords refusing to take rent vouchers. Rayna Plummer, Mayor Andre Dickens’ deputy press secretary, said the commission is looking into it.

Cardinale, the editor of Atlanta Progressive News and a longtime thorn in the side of city officials, said in a text that “Atlanta lessors are not required to accept vouchers,” citing Georgia code that prohibits local governments from expanding the state’s fair housing law, which does not bar discrimination against renters based on sources of income.

The 2020 ordinance is “illegal” and “the city knows this,” said Cardinale. “I support this policy—just not until it’s of legal effect.”

Prohibiting landlords from refusing to rent to people based on their source of income is good policy, and state lawmakers should change the law so the city can enforce the 2020 ordinance, said Michael Lucas, the executive director of Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, which handles evictions and housing cases for low-income Atlantans.

“This kind of tenant protection is an important part of addressing the problem we have here in Atlanta,” Lucas said of the housing affordability crisis. “If state intervention is needed in order for it to be fully enforced, then that has to be part of it.”

As the city legislation addressing fair housing, authored by Farokhi and former city council member Antonio Brown, approached a vote in early 2020, the city’s legal department suggested adding an amendment to delay enforcing “source of income” as a category protected from landlord discrimination until the state legislature changes the state law to allow it, according to WABE.

But the council decided against the amendment and passed the legislation by a 13-2 vote.

City Councilmember Howard Shook, one of the two naysayers, said he voted against the ordinance because he didn’t want to vote for a law that violated state law.

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