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Ethics: Texas Homeless Network
- Samantha Maggiani
Ethics are a critical component in any profession. This is particularly true for professions rooted in health or other human services. Professional ethics are at the core of the Social Work profession and are utilized when focused attention is needed on ethical issues that arise in practice. Ethical codes provide insight on ethical norms, provide guidance for ethically informed decisions, and contribute to the strengthening of professional identity (Warren, 2014). The literature and research on professional ethics has considerably expanded in recent years and many professional training programs address ethical issues. This awareness of ethical issues is necessary in a field like social work because of the complex ethical dimensions of practice. Social Workers often serve disenfranchised or vulnerable populations taking on a variety of roles and responsibilities. The profession focuses on the client and encourages taking a person-centered, humanistic approach to services. This approach lends itself to ethical dilemmas as practioners are involved in very personal, sometimes life changing events with their clients. Because of this, it is important that professional ethics remain at the core of the work of social workers and other human service workers.
Ethics are of extreme importance to Texas Homeless Network (THN) and are a value identified in their Guiding Principles to Service. THN works to provide exemplary standards of ethical behavior and believes it is imperative to achieving its mission (THN.org, 2015). THN does not provide direct services to clients. Rather, THN works with service providers and individuals working to end homelessness in Texas. Although they do not assist clients directly, staff at THN still encounters ethical dilemmas in practice.
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For example, a current ethical dilemma identified in practice is related to Source of Income Protections advocacy work. In April 2014, the city of Austin amended its housing discrimination ordinance to add “lawful sources of income” as a protected class. The ordinance classifies lawful sources of income as non-employment income such as social security benefits, child support, and tenant-based rental assistance otherwise known as housing vouchers. This amendment was approved unanimously by city council and was intended to increase housing opportunities for low income families, working poor, disabled, veterans, and the elderly. Austin City Council adopted this amendment in response to the large amount of fair housing complaints and increasing economic segregation the city was experiencing.
Another piece of evidence supporting the ordinance was a 2014 Austin Tenant’s Council survey that found 91 percent of private landlords across five area counties who own units within a voucher price range refused to accept Section 8 vouchers (Austin Tenants Council, 2014). This refusal to accept vouchers concentrates voucher holders in areas of high crime, high poverty, and low performing schools, thus exacerbating the problems around economic segregation and economic mobility. Immediately after the ordinance was passed, the Austin Apartment Association (AAA) filed a lawsuit claiming the ordinance “contravenes both state and federal law” demanding it be declared invalid and unenforceable. Their argument is that private property owners have the right to use it as he/she sees fit as long as overt discrimination is not involved. The AAA says that their members are not refusing to rent to Black or Hispanic applicants because of their race and therefore no discrimination is taking place.
On February 27, 2015 Federal District Judge Sam Sparks rejected the AAA’s request for an injunction that would have blocked the implementation of the ordinance. The court ruled that the AAA failed in its “burden of demonstrating a substantial likelihood of success on the merits” of the case noting that although some burden is placed on the landlord the ordinance was advancing “an obvious legitimate government interests of ensuring low-income, minority populations have access to affordable housing.”(Sparks, 2015) The judge also ruled that “the AAA was violating the liberty to contract or not to contract…except as restricted by antitrust, antidiscrimination, and other statues.”(Sparks, 2015) Judge Spark’s ruling allowed the City of Austin to continue working on implementation of the fair housing ordinance but now Texas’ lawmakers are getting involved. Legislators from around the state have introduced legislation that would reverse Austin’s Source of Income protections, as well as legislation that would not allow local municipalities to enact or implement similar ordinances that are more restrictive than state law. This attempt to turn the legislature into an appellate court is in response to Austin’s fair housing ordinance and other local more controversial ordinances, such as identifying LGBTQ as a protected class for housing. The proposed legislation would restrict local governments from enacting locally driven solutions for issues such as fair and affordable housing.
The topic of housing discrimination of voucher holders has many ethical concerns. On one side is the AAA and its members who claim that the American system of laws and ethics allow them to rent to whomever they choose as long as they provide safe housing for all residents. On a different side of the ethical debate is the National Association of Social Workers that posits six ethical standards that are relevant to the professional activities of all social workers, some of which are directly related to this issue. For example, an ethical dilemma that THN has identified related to housing discrimination is (1) the responsibility to our clients to promote their well-being and (2) to respect and promote their right to self-determination (NASW, 2008). For this example, a caseworker is helping his/her client obtain and secure permanent housing with the use of a housing voucher. Ideally, the client would be given the opportunity to choose where he/she wanted to live and the case worker should respect that client’s right to self-determination and autonomy and diligently help the client obtain their housing of choice. If the property owner does not accept vouchers, it is then the caseworker’s responsibility to serve as a liaison between the client and property management to educate property management and build a relationship for the client. This is where the ethical dilemma arises. As the social worker in this situation, does the client’s right to autonomy and self-determination trump the landlord’s right to the same? Do we restrict those rights to our clients and no one else? What if the landlord feels disenfranchised by the ordinance from the city taking away his property rights to choose who he wants to serve? These are all questions related to ethics that social workers must pay very close attention to in a situation like the one described.
The factors impacting this dilemma on a micro level relate to the client and the landlords. If a client does not get the choice to live outside of high poverty, low opportunity areas, then the likelihood of his/her progressing toward self-sufficiency and success could decrease. For the property owners, they argue that their freedom to run their business as they see fit is unnecessarily, and illegally, compromised. On a macro level, not addressing the issue and accepting apartment owner’s ability to have a “no Section 8” policy would only intensify the already dire economic segregation and goes against the social work value to challenge social injustice. Based on analysis of the consequences of not implementing an ordinance like the one in Austin, as well as the actions and other alternative options that City Council looked at prior to enacting the ordinance, the ethically responsible response is to support the ordinance and combat social injustice. This argument is strengthened by the decision of Judge Sparks. Part of his reasoning is that the real world damage or “burden” to the AAA members of abiding by the ordinance is small given the fact that the voucher holders are still paying the rents charged by the property owners. They are not suffering an economic loss at all. So the bigger loss to society would be with the AAA’s reaction to the attempt by the City of Austin to address the realities of discrimination against voucher holders since it would further discrimination and maintain the racially segregated status quo that has existed in Austin for far too long. Other cities and some whole states have enacted ordinances similar to Austin’s with many already found constitutional in respective higher courts.
Possible consequences to Austin’s plan to address housing discrimination is the effect on the relationship between AAA and local housing service providers. The service community has expressed concerns with such a public fight against the group since they often work together in partnership to house people within their programs. The AAA has identified reversing Source of Income ordinance as a priority this legislative session and there have been many heated conversations during public hearings and sessions on the chamber floor. This high-profile battle could have consequences on housing placement options for providers in the near future.
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But source of income protections are not enough to solve economic segregation. Texas cities are facing an unprecedented lack of affordable housing. Low wages and the underfunded, often inaccessible mainstream programs such as SNAP or TANF also contribute to the issues surrounding housing affordability for a large percentage of citizens. An effort to create a local minimum wage of fifteen dollars per hour would be needed also. To prevent similar ethical dilemmas from occurring it takes concerted, strategic efforts from all stakeholders involved. Public Housing Authorities and other city entities need to work harder to outreach to property management and apartment associations to educate them on their programs. Housing providers and human service agencies must work with their clients to advocate and share experiences with lawmakers. And agencies like THN that work with both, need to make more efforts to bridge the gap between providers and consumers. The current efforts by THN during the 84th Legislature are exemplary of this effort to combat housing discrimination and prevent homelessness for vulnerable Texans.
Austin Apartment Association vs City of Austin. U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas Austin Division. 27 Feb. 2015. Print.
Austin Tenants Council. (2014). Voucher Holders Need Not Apply: ATC 2014 Study Housing Discrimination
National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Washington, DC. NASW Press.
“Resources.” Texas Homeless Network, Helping Communities End Homelessness. n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2015
Warren. (2014, January 1). Ethics in Social Work: An Ethical Code for Social Work Professionals. Retrieved from http://cdn.ifsw.org/assets/Socialt_arbete_etik_08_Engelsk_LR.pdf
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