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Texas remains center of preemption debate, now over low-income housing

May 20, 2015

By Mohana Kute

Texas is the current “ground zero” for state preemption of local authority on issues including fracking, plastic bags, guns and smokefree ordinances. The latest development is state interference with a proposed local affordable housing ordinance in Dallas.

The Texas Senate passed SB 267 in early April. It would restrict local control over housing policies, preempting local authority to adopt ordinances prohibiting discrimination against low-income applicants. This type of law gives low-income residents more opportunities to use federal housing vouchers to help pay their rent. State Senator Charles Perry, author of SB 267, believes such laws infringe upon landlords’ rights.

SB 267 exempts Austin, which already passed a local ordinance supporting the use of housing vouchers. However, the Austin Apartment Association has filed a lawsuit against the city over this ordinance saying it “unreasonably interferes with private property rights.”

"Project Row house studios" by Hourick (Creative Commons)
Project Row House studios, cc Hourick

Another example of state preemption interfering with local control, this bill also illustrates the need to discuss housing instability as a public health concern. Affordable, quality and stable housing can greatly impact the mental and physical health of low-income residents, according to a report by the Center for Housing Policy, a research division of the National Housing Conference (NHC). Federal rent subsidies increase the spending power of low-income families to utilize their limited funds for other necessities such as nutritious food and health-related expenses. The NHC research shows unstable housing can cause stress and depression, while quality housing in safe neighborhoods can lead to better health outcomes for low-income residents, and increase access to medical care and other necessary facilities.

Although it would not be exempt under the proposed preemption law, Dallas is currently considering an ordinance similar to Austin’s as part of a settlement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But it is yet to be seen whether Dallas will join Austin in adopting such a measure, which this bill would prevent. The debate in Dallas has now moved beyond tenant and landlord rights into the central issue of local control.

As is the case with other health and safety issues, residents and local officials need the authority to make their communities more affordable, and SB 267 would undermine that local control. As Texas becomes a laboratory for dozens of new preemption proposals, we can assume other states will consider preempting local regulation of housing vouchers.