Disabled military veterans who use vouchers to pay rent will find it easier to lease homes in the Tri-Cities and elsewhere in Washington state after a sting by the state attorney general's office.
Celski & Associates Inc. of Kennewick and nine other property managers initially declined to rent to investigators who posed as veterans using Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers to pay their rent. Two other agencies are in Walla Walla.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson called the VASH program a key tool in the fight to house homeless veterans.
"A blanket denial is outrageous," Ferguson said. "It is also illegal."
Ferguson said he ordered the Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit to investigate discrimination against veterans after his office regularly fielded complaints that some were being denied housing if they used VASH to pay their rent. That violates Washington's Law Against Discrimination, he said.
A bill pending in Olympia will explicitly ban discrimination against VASH users, but Ferguson said he's confident the existing law applies.
VASH is a federal program to support veterans with disabilities, including mental illness, substance abuse disorders and physical disabilities.
For the sting, the attorney general's office partnered with Northwest Fair Housing Alliance in Spokane in 2016.
Investigators emailed property managers who had advertised homes for rent. In their messages, investigators said they were veterans and were interested in renting. They said they had VASH vouchers to cover rent.
Of the 50 landlords contacted, 10 said they wouldn't rent to VASH users.
Jason Celski is a U.S. Air Force veteran who runs a law practice and property management firm in Kennewick.
He said the employee who fielded the inquiry from investigators did not realize it was for a veteran and that the message referred to VASH by the acronym, not its full name.
Ferguson defended the investigation, saying his team provided would-be landlords with a clear picture of the prospective tenant.
"They knew exactly what it was," he said.
After follow-up, eight of the companies, including Celski, agreed to amend their policies.
Two disagreed, asserting the current law doesn't apply.
They are awaiting the outcome of a bill pending in Olympia. If approved, the bill will explicitly prohibit landlords from refusing to rent property based on the tenant's source of income, including VASH and other subsidies.
Ferguson supported the bill, which passed in the House and is pending in the Senate Rules committee. A similar bill already passed the Senate this session. Ferguson said he believes it will pass this session.
In addition to Celski, the companies that agreed to change their policies are KPS Realty of Spokane; Domus Urbis of Spokane; Country Homes Realty of Spokane; Rowley Properties of Issaquah; TJ Cline of Walla Walla; Welcome Home Properties of Walla Walla; and Yelm Creek Apartments of Yelm.
Ferguson said he will sue the holdouts, Apartment Management Consultants of Utah and Mission Rock Residential of Colorado, under the state's law against discrimination if the new law does not pass and they refuse to come into compliance.
VASH is a venture of the U.S. departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development. More than 52,000 Washington households use "housing choice" vouchers in 2017.
It was not immediately clear how many of those are through the VASH program. There were approximately 1,500 homeless veterans in Washington, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute based in Washington, D.C.
This article was written by Wendy Culverwell from Tri-City Herald and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.