Industrial Commissioner John Florez is no stranger to discrimination. He was born in this community, but because of his Mexican heritage, he has encountered problems renting an apartment - or even a hotel room. He had to send his wife to do the renting, he said.
His story is not unique. People with disabilities, those from minorities and even single parents gathered on Tuesday to talk about discrimination and ask lawmakers to support a bipartisan bill to bring Utah in line with recently passed federal fair housing standards.Utah is one of a handful of states without its own fair housing regulations and an office within the state to hear complaints. The bill would establish that office locally, so Utahns wouldn't have to rely on a Denver office to address grievances.
SB14, the Utah Fair Housing Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Kay Cornaby, R-Salt Lake, and Frances Farley, D-Salt Lake, cleared its first hurdle Tuesday during a Senate Social Services standing committee meeting that was packed with spectators and speakers on both sides of the issue.
"In a parochial sense, Utah is unique," Cornaby said. "We have our own set of values, our own priorities. Utahns ought to be evaluating Utahns' claims."
Under SB14, it would be illegal for a real estate broker, financial institution or property owner to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, family status, source of income or disability. Private homeowners, those who have interest in fewer than four single-family dwellings at a time, those who sell fewer than two units in two years, schools, religions and several others are exempt.
Landlord Jim Ragan talked about tenants he's had who are handicapped, mentally ill or clients of the Utah Housing Authority: "I find them probably just a little better than the average renter."
James Boud, an attorney representing mobile home owners, took issue with SB14. "Although we don't agree completely with federal law, we have to live with it. But this bill goes beyond that into the source-of-income category."
He said homeowners should be able to charge people on public assistance a bigger deposit and first and last month's rent, even if they do not typically require it, because a welfare grant cannot be garnished.
"Maybe his clients need to be slapped around a little because they don't understand," was the response from Max Ryujin, chairman of the Utah Association of Realtors. "Discrimination undermines the basic fiber of our community."
"Contrary to what is said, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of income," said Bruce Plenk, Utah Legal Services, who urged lawmakers to support the bill. "The last thing a person on welfare needs is, `I'm happy to rent to someone who has $300 income, but not to you because yours comes from the state and their's from working in a convenience store.' It's important to pass this bill."
"Unless there are two sets of laws I don't know anything about . . . the state requires the same laws for welfare clients as anyone else," said NAACP representative Lenoris Bush, who is also a landlord. He added, "We would like to have the bill this year."