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Subsidized housing records exempt from Sunshine Law

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MISSOURI   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Sep. 12, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MISSOURI   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Sep. 12, 2005

Subsidized housing records exempt from Sunshine Law

  • State public records law excludes from disclosure information about government housing recipients, an appellate court has ruled.

Sep. 12, 2005  ·   A Kansas City real estate broker was denied information about beneficiaries of the state’s housing assistance program after a state appellate judge declared the information exempt from the state’s Sunshine Law.

The Missouri Court of Appeals in Kansas City reversed a lower court, stating that information on tenants, landowners, owners and managers linked to public housing assistance falls under the “welfare cases” exemption of the open records law.

The court ruled that the Missouri General Assembly, in passing the open records exemption, “expressed a clear mandate to exclude information about identified persons who, because of need, receive government assistance for shelter.”

In a December 2000 request to the Housing Authority of Kansas City, developer Kennedy F. Jones sought information on a potential tenant including addresses and a Social Security number, as well as records of past participants of the state’s Section 8 subsidized public-housing program. The housing authority provided him with limited records the following month, but refused to disclose certain information Jones said was public record under the Sunshine Law, including Social Security numbers and addresses. “This was something that I had regularly done. Other landlords had gotten this information before; what I was asking isn’t new,” he said.

Jones, a licensed real estate broker in Kansas City for 21 years, sued and in June 2002, the trial court ruled that the information should be disclosed but denied Jones attorney fees. The appeals court dismissed Jones’s appeal on the fees issue, ruling that there was an inadequate record on the issue. On remand to the trial court in May 2004, the judge again determined that Jones should receive the requested information, and found that the Kansas City housing authority intentionally violated the state’s Sunshine Law in its refusal to release the records, awarding Jones attorney fees of more than $10,000.

On the housing authority’s appeal to the May 2004 ruling, the three-judge panel ruled unanimously Aug. 16 that the trial court had erred in granting the disclosure of the information, determining that the materials fell within the Sunshine Law’s express exemption for “[w]elfare cases of identifiable individuals.”

But Jones thinks the legislature did not intend housing assistance to be categorized with welfare, noting that the housing authorities were not expressly listed as an exemption under the law. “I just think the court doesn’t agree with the legislature. And if they don’t agree with the law, there are channels to make changes; you can’t circumvent the law which is what the court system has done,” he said.

The housing authority’s state-mandated policies and procedures state that upon request, the authority will provide landlords with a family’s “current address, and the name, address, and telephone numbers of the family’s current and prior landlords. The information denied to Jones, specifically the Social Security number and addresses of one tenant as well as the Social Security numbers and birth dates of all tenants who had participated in Missouri assisted housing from 1993 to 2000, is protected information, said Edwin Lowndes, the executive director for the housing authority. As such, it was properly withheld, he said. “Under Missouri state statutes, information of identifiable individuals is protected — it is personal information,” he said. “It would have a chilling effect on persons applying for government assistance if their information would become available to anyone just because they had applied for assistance.”

Jones has filed for a rehearing or a transfer to the Missouri Supreme Court. Without the information he requested, he said, it becomes more difficult to determine whether or not to rent to a particular tenant, citing past incidents of property damage when he was unable to properly research tenants.

(Jones v. Housing Authority of Kansas City, Requester’s counsel: David C. Vogel, Kansas City, Mo.)CZ

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