A Durango City Council more accustomed to annexations and sewer-line extensions was urged Tuesday to follow the example of the Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and stand up for the civil rights of college students.
By declaring students a “protected class,” landlords would face civil penalties for denying housing to people because they’re students, just as federal and state fair housing laws already make it illegal to discriminate against renters on the basis of national origin, sex or race.
Jeremy Taylor, 20, an environmental studies major at Fort Lewis College, said housing discrimination against students is a fact of life, as evidenced by the “students need not apply” classified advertisements in The Durango Herald.
Jaime McMillan, a student advocate and an unaffiliated candidate for the Colorado House of Representatives District 59, said local students read about the civil-rights movements in history books and then experience discrimination for themselves when they try to rent an apartment.
During a City Council study session, McMillan and Taylor suggested the city adopt an ordinance similar to those on the books in Madison, Wis., and Austin, Texas. Those cities have created public boards made up of landlords, students and city attorneys to hear cases of alleged discrimination and impose fines if warranted.
Before McMillan and Taylor appeared before the council, City Councilor Doug Lyon, a management professor at FLC, told Mayor Christina Rinderle that “the last thing I want to do is politicize the relationship between landlords and tenants.”
Lyon said he did not think it was necessary to expand federal and state antidiscrimination laws that were already “robust.”
Councilors made it clear that they were sympathetic to students, but were openly skeptical about the proposed ordinance. On a practical level, Rinderle doubted whether the city could add another layer of government when the city is already understaffed, unable to afford another code-enforcement officer.
Councilor Dick White, a retired professor of astronomy at Smith College in Massachusetts, wanted to know what college towns similar in size to Durango do. He noted Madison and Austin were 10 to 20 times larger than Durango.
City officials also worried about unintended consequences. City Manager Ron LeBlanc wondered if the protected-class status would make it difficult for police officers to justify traffic stops for students.
Anticipating another unintended consequence, McMillan said landlords could still discriminate against people with pets because pets are not people.
“Pets don’t have the same status as human beings,” he said. “This is such a dog-lover community, I better be careful.”
McMillan also said landlords would still retain their contractual rights. When questioned by city officials, McMillan, who is a landlord himself, agreed that landlords could still charge one renter a large deposit but waive it for another.
City Attorney David Smith and others pointed out that the landlords would still be able to practice “de facto discrimination.”
Smith suggested the city could prohibit discriminatory advertisements, but Councilor Paul Broderick said this would make life worse for students by wasting their time. Students would not know which landlords do not want student renters.
“You’ll have to call every advertisement in the newspaper,” he said.
Taylor acknowledged the complexity of the issue and the concerns of landlords by noting there are always some students who not take care of their property.
Still, he wondered about the city officials’ skepticism because anti-discrimination laws “have only made America better.”