Hundreds of homeless veterans in King County have housing vouchers they haven’t been able to use. The Attorney General’s office alleges some landlords are discriminating against them.
Posing as veterans, they sent emails to landlords. They said they were interested in renting, and they had federal housing vouchers for veterans with disabilities.
But they weren’t veterans — they were investigators from the Washington state attorney general’s civil-rights unit.
Responses from landlords varied, but 10 companies said they could not accept Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers, or that they don’t take vouchers of that kind. Attorney General Bob Ferguson contends that practice violates Washington’s anti-discrimination law, which protects veterans and people with disabilities.
As a result of the investigation, eight companies in Washington agreed to accept tenants who have the veterans’ vouchers. Two more companies, based outside of Washington, did not settle and Ferguson said his office may look at bringing a lawsuit.
Ferguson said a primary reason for the investigation is the crisis of homelessness among veterans, which is especially acute in King County.
Former President Barack Obama set the goal in 2009, of ending veterans’ homelessness, and the number of vouchers surged from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs nationwide. Between 2009 and 2017, veteran homelessness in the U.S. dropped 45 percent.
But between 2016 and 2017, it went up 2 percent, rising for the first time since 2010 because of an increase of unsheltered veterans in major cities like Seattle.
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King County’s All Home, the coordinating agency for homeless services, followed the federal strategy and pledged to end veterans’ homelessness in the county by 2015; it did not meet the goal.
In the county’s 2017 count of homelessness, 1,329 said they were veterans — 11 percent of the total homeless population.
As of September, less than three quarters of the 688 veteran-housing vouchers for King County were in use, according to the National Homeless Information Project.
The vouchers are similar to Section 8 vouchers, but include case management and clinical services from the Department of Veterans Affairs for veterans who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless.
One of the persistent problems in ending veteran homelessness is when homeless veterans have a voucher in hand but are unable to redeem it for housing, according to Leo Flor, King County’s manager of the Veterans, Seniors and Human Services levy and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Flor attributes that gap partly to discrimination against veterans, or landlords’ concerns about credit or criminal history.
Ferguson said his investigation was intended to signal to landlords to accept the vouchers. “Part of why we do this,” Ferguson said, “is also partly to communicate to the industry what the law is.”
The attorney general could go after the two landlord companies — Utah-based Apartment Management Consultants LLC and Colorado-based Mission Rock Residential LLC — which did not agree to stop the alleged discrimination. Apartment Management Consultants, which did not respond to a request for comment, has properties in 10 cities in Washington, including Everett.
The state Legislature is considering a law that would bar a landlord from refusing to rent property to someone based on the source of their income, including voucher, welfare or disability payments.
The companies who settled with the Attorney General’s Office have properties in Walla Walla, Spokane, King, Thurston and Benton counties. Among them is Rowley Properties in Issaquah, which agreed to pay a fine of $6,500, according to court filings.
In a statement, Rowley Properties said it hires many veterans and does not discriminate, but settled the case to avoid “more costly litigation.”
“At the time this was brought to our attention we did not believe we were doing anything wrong with regards to our rental practices under the Fair Housing/Landlord Tenant Law and we were following the express recommendations of the appropriate State agencies,” according to the statement. “We do not discriminate and we did not discriminate.”