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Low income discrimination and the housing crisis

Mindy Woods says that landlords commonly discriminate against section 8, low income renters. (Sara Lerner)

Mindy Woods is in a tough situation. She is caught in the middle of a battle over what are legal rental practices amid skyrocketing rents and a housing crisis.

Wood is a Navy veteran. She also has health issues. And she has a Section 8 voucher for housing — a federal program that assists lower-income Americans with paying rent. Woods said that tenants with section 8 vouchers have a more difficult time getting into apartments because of the stigma that comes with the low-income assistance.

The City of Seattle has made strides to fight landlords discriminating against renters with section 8 vouchers. Mayor Ed Murray, along with council member Kshama Sawant, proposed new prohibitions on landlords. The proposal aims to ban raising rents for homes in violation of maintenance and safety codes. It also offers protections to tenants if landlords attempt to retaliate against them for reporting unsafe living conditions. And it requires landlords to give 60 days notices if they are raising rent by more than 10 percent. The Seattle City Council will consider the proposal this spring.

Related: Seattle housing market is ‘driven by true demand and true limited supply’

But Woods’ story doesn’t begin with Seattle’s latest effort to help residents being pushed out of their homes by the tough rental market. It started years ago, shortly after she left the Navy after the Gulf War.

She began having what she describes as bizarre symptoms — memory loss, headaches, fatigue.

She said it took a year for the first diagnosis: fibromyalgia. Then two years later she was diagnosed with lupus. Then, thyroid disease.

“Over the course of fifteen years, I was finally diagnosed also with psoriatic arthritis. That’s an inflammatory arthritis throughout the body,” she said. “So four autoimmune diseases.”

“And in doing research of Gulf War Syndrome, all four fall underneath that category,” Woods said. “And shipmates of mine are also experiencing much of the same stuff, so there’s definitely a gulf war syndrome. For anybody who didn’t think it was real.”

She said she was in the gulf for months, breathing toxic chemicals from the air near 200-300 oil rigs that were burning.

She was going through her medical problems as a single mother, having to make ends meet.

Woods was finally was able to get diagnosed and get disability as a veteran because of her service — that’s through social security.

But now she’s finding herself in a situation years later where she’s having a hard time finding a place to live. The good news is that she received a section 8 voucher for housing.

And that brings us to her current problem.

“Then to have landlords not accept a section 8 voucher because they think that anybody on a subsidized voucher program is going to be some kind of a problem tenant and there’s absolutely no statistics to show that. None at all,” Woods said.

She is sure that if she didn’t have section 8 housing, she would have found a place by now.

It’s illegal in the City of Seattle for landlords to say, “We don’t accept people who use section 8 housing vouchers.” It’s not illegal, however, in other cities all over the state, like where Woods is looking in Lynnwood and Edmonds. Her voucher is for Snohomish County.

Seattle officials, just this week, said they want to expand protections for renters because they see landlords discriminate against people beyond just the section 8 vouchers — with other sources of income.

That expanded protection is something that the mayor is proposing to the city council.

Woods said she is public about her situation. She said she is someone who is considered a “sheltered homeless person,” and she decided to be so public after one incident. She was staying in a motel under a county shelter program.

“We came out of the motel door on our way to school one morning and we stepped out into the hallway and we heard a door closing down the hall from us and we looked down and my son’s best friend and his dad were walking out of the door four doors down,” Woods said. “They, too, were homeless and in a shelter. And we just looked at each other and I was just shocked.”

She realized that someone she would never have imagined would be homeless was, and her friends, too, never would think it about her.

“That was when I just had to let it go. All of the pride. All of the shame. All of the guilt. The embarrassment,” she said. “It’s a real issue, you know, and when you’re seeing your son’s friends go through the same thing. It was time to speak up.”

And now Mindy has been without a home for six months. She’s been couch surfing. She’s been staying with friends. She has nine days before she needs to find a place.

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