Bills prohibiting landlords from income-based discrimination pass House committee

Shannon McKenney Shubert, with the Michigan Breastfeeding Network, and Tameka White, a Certified Lactation Counselor, with their kids, testifying to the House Judiciary Committee, May 15, 2024. (Screenshot via Michigan Advance)

By Michigan Advance

May 16, 2024

BY JON KING, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

MICHIGAN—A five-bill package that would prevent landlords from denying renters based on their source of income passed through the Michigan House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, with testimony also taken on legislation to expand the rights for those breastfeeding their children.

The rent-related package, which is comprised of Senate Bills 205, 206 and 207, along with House Bills 4062 and 4063, would prohibit landlords with five or more rental units from denying prospective renters because of their use of housing vouchers or other subsidies to pay rent, with options to file for damages as well as a discrimination complaint.

When the Senate Housing and Human Services Committee took testimony last year on the bills, state Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), the lead sponsor of SB 206, said that the issue of rent discrimination was surprisingly pervasive in Michigan and noted a pair of rental complexes in her district decided to stop renting to people with housing subsidies after a change in ownership, ultimately displacing several residents.

Wednesday’s testimony included that from state Rep. Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor), sponsor of HB 4063, which would add “source of income” to the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) so that a complaint could then be filed with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

“We have seen folks denied from housing based on their source of income over and over again,” he told the committee. “As chair of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, we’ve been working really hard to ensure that every veteran has a safe place to live in our state. In this effort, the department has shared on more than one occasion that our veterans are facing discrimination due to their source of income in our state. Let me emphasize this again.

“Today in Michigan, there are currently veterans facing discrimination in housing. We need to end that. Veterans, the elderly [and] hardworking families should know that their basic right to housing in their community is being affected. This package would ensure that we are able to do that for those folks.”

The only question from the panel came from Rep. Andrew Fink (R-Adams Twp.), a former U.S. Marine Captain, who asked Morgan to what extent veterans were affected by income discrimination.

“It’s a small percentage,” responded Morgan. “I don’t know the exact number but the point is any veteran that faces housing discrimination because they’re receiving their rightful veteran benefits for housing should not face discrimination.”

When Fink asked if there would be interest in tailoring the legislation to veterans, Morgan declined.

“No, only because I think that veterans are a critically important component of folks who gain protection, but also so do other folks who receive their rental income from a voucher or a public benefit or anything else, so I would like to protect everyone at the same time rather than just one group of folks who are facing discrimination,” he said.

“So it seems we agree that these bills are not really about veterans housing, but they’re a general topic,” responded Fink at which point committee chair, state Rep. Kelly Breen (D-Novi), stepped in.

“Representative, I’m going to say you’re mischaracterizing what Representative Morgan is saying,” Breen asserted. “That is not what he said.”

“As usual, I’m accused of mischaracterization. I invite everybody to review the tape. Thank you, Madam Chair,” Fink replied.

At that point, all five bills were voted out of the Judiciary Committee along party lines, with the Democratic majority providing the 7-5 margin. The Senate bills were already approved by that chamber, but they are tie-barred to the two House bills, which further define the extent to which the laws could be utilized and in what circumstances.

Afterward, Fink, who is planning to seek the GOP nomination to replace Michigan Supreme Court Justice David Viviano, said his opposition is based on a fundamental disagreement with the premise.

“I think that putting source of income as a protected class on the same level as racial discrimination or religious discrimination or what have you is frankly ridiculous,” he said. “I think it also ignores the legitimate economic reasons why people might not think that their rental units are a good fit for subsidized housing. And I think that those issues are reasonable, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying ‘I’m not a good fit for subsidized housing’.”

As to the dispute with Morgan and Breen over how much veterans were really affected, Fink stood firm in what he said.

“It’s a tiny percentage,” he said. “I just think it’s, at best, obfuscatory to make this bill about veterans when it applies to all kinds of subsidized housing, and it’s a tiny percentage of that that’s about veterans. It would be a different conversation if it was really about that.”

Morgan told the Advance that Fink was “absolutely wrong.” He said as the subcommittee chair, he’s “taken a deep dive into figuring out how I can ensure that no veteran is homeless in our state. In that process, we have been told explicitly from the Department of Veterans Affairs that veterans are facing housing discrimination today.”

Breastfeeding discrimination

The committee also took testimony on a bill seeking to expand rights for those who breastfeed their children.

Senate Bill 351, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), would amend the Breastfeeding Antidiscrimination Act to prohibit discrimination in places of public accommodation or public service against an individual because the individual was expressing human milk.

Passed in 2014, the act allowed breastfeeding in public spaces, whereas previously state public indecency laws didn’t specifically exempt breastfeeding from “indecent exposure” and the corresponding criminal penalties.

However, the current law does not apply to the pumping or expressing of breastmilk, something many working mothers must do while away from their children. SB 351 would address that by simply adding “expressing human milk” to the statute.

“When you are breastfeeding, you frequently need to pump several times a day if you’re not with your child or if your child isn’t able to breastfeed directly,” said Alexi Chapin-Smith, Irwin’s legislative director. “You may need to do this in a place where there is not a facility available for you to do it, or with more modern breast pumps, there’s a way to wear them under your clothes in public and we just don’t want people to feel that they are going to be in any way discriminated against for doing what they need to feed their child.”

Shannon McKenney Shubert is the executive director of the Michigan Breastfeeding Network and attended Wednesday’s hearing with two of her children, 10-year-old Samantha and 1-year-old Josephine, whose names she mixed up much to the exasperation of Samantha.

“I thought I said Samantha?” she said when her oldest protested.

“It happens,” laughed Breen.

The moment of levity over, Shubert told the committee that in Michigan, 86% of families will start to feed their children breastmilk, but within a few weeks, sometimes even just a few days, those rates plummet.

“And one of the reasons is because it is so hard to exist in public as someone who pumps,” she said. “Ninety percent of Michigan families express their milk at some point during their breastfeeding journey, and without the protection to do so in a public space, a lot of times people will say, ‘I can no longer breastfeed because I have to exist in public in order to feed my other children.’

Shubert offered some examples of when an individual who wants to provide human milk for their baby can’t do so through breastfeeding, such as when a baby is in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and can’t be with their mother, or a child in the foster care system whose only connection to their biological family is through the human milk provided by a courier service or even victims of sexual assault who decide against briging a baby to their breast directly.

“Human milk, we call it liquid gold, is foundational to the health of the individual, to the community, and to society, and we all really need to work together to make sure that any family can feed their baby in the way that they want to, in the way that they need to,” she said. “We believe that expanding this law will make it so that so many more families are able to continue forward and feed their babies for the duration that they desire, which, as you know, most health organizations recommend two years of breastfeeding, and it’s just not possible for so many families if they can’t do it in public.”

Also speaking was Tameka White, a Certified Lactation Counselor, who was joined by her 18-month-old son, Nasir.

“For many Black and Brown women and people living in poverty, the ability to freely express breast milk is a pre-contemplation issue,” she said. “Going back to work is at the forefront of many marginalized women’s minds as they are deciding how they will feed their child.”

White said her first experience with breastfeeding 22 years ago was when she was in a welfare-to-work program, and there were no breastfeeding laws and she had no place to pump.

“So I sat with engorgement all day, and once I did return to the workforce, I pumped in a health care at home setting next to my client’s litter box,” said White, who added that often employers ask mothers to pump in bathrooms.

“They are telling mothers that, ‘We cannot tolerate that here,’ they cannot even have the ability to bond with their child after birth because at the forefront of their mind is returning to work.”

The bill has already passed the Michigan Senate, but will have to be moved by the House Judiciary Committee before making its way to the floor for a vote.

READ MORE: Renters’ rights group rallies at housing conference in Lansing

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license.

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