Faced with an ongoing affordable-housing crisis and a severe waitlist for residents receiving government housing assistance, the Santa Rosa City Council is considering a policy to help some of the city’s most vulnerable renters find housing more quickly.
On Sept. 24, the council will vote on a proposed ordinance to ban landlords from discriminating against prospective renters who use federal housing assistance vouchers through a program called Section 8.
Under the program, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awards vouchers to low-income individuals and families. Local agencies, in this case the Santa Rosa Housing Authority, distribute the vouchers to local applicants.
Although the process sounds simple, there is a lot of waiting involved. According to Carmelita Howard, the city’s deputy director of housing and community services, the Santa Rosa Housing Authority only opens its wait list once every two years, and applicants are on the list for an average of eight years.
Once they have qualified for a voucher, tenants still struggle to find a residence within the allotted time period—60 days after receiving a voucher—in part because many landlords choose not to rent to voucher holders, considering them more burdensome than other tenants. The vouchers come in two forms: one is a general voucher that can be used by a tenant wherever they might find a willing landlord; the other is a site-specific voucher that pays the rent in an identified housing unit.
Although landlords are paid the market rate for the unit, a voucher-holder’s rent is paid by the local housing agency rather than directly from the tenant. Some landlords say the prospect of registering with a government agency and undergoing property inspections makes renting units on the open market a better deal. Persistent, although often untrue, stereotypes of voucher holders make matters worse as well.
The practice of not renting to voucher holders, known as “source of income” discrimination, is allowed under federal rules while other forms of housing discrimination—based on race, religion, sex and other factors—are illegal.
Still, discrimination against voucher users is widespread.
A 2018 report studying housing voucher discrimination in five American cities by the Urban Institute, a policy think tank, found that 76 percent of landlords in Los Angeles discriminated against voucher users.
Overall, the authors of the report responded to an average of 39 advertisements before identifying one advertised unit whose owner considered renting to a voucher recipient.
At the local level, voucher users and housing activists offered stories of their own during a council meeting last month.
“In the past month, we have had three clients who are disabled, senior veterans who are unable to use their vouchers because of this kind of discrimination,” says Shelley Clark, a housing policy attorney at Legal Aid. “Many other jurisdictions across the state have enacted this type of ordinance. The policy has been litigated and vetted [by those jurisdictions],”
Beatrice Camacho, a tenant organizer with the North Bay Organizing Project who grew up in Section 8 housing, says passing the anti-discrimination law is “the right thing to do.”
“This is a personal issue for me,” Camacho says. “I was able to grow up in a safe environment. But I think about what would have happened if my parents had been discriminated against because they were voucher holders.”
There are more than 1,400 Housing Choice Voucher users in Santa Rosa, according to Howard.
Because many people experiencing homelessness—87 percent in the latest county count—lived in Sonoma County before moving onto the streets, an improved housing voucher pipeline could help decrease the homeless population.
This is not the first time the city has rejected source-of-income discrimination legislation. In June 2015, the city council directed staff to study the proposed policy change but nothing came of it.
Councilmember Julie Combs, who backed both the 2015 and 2019 proposals, sees the legislation as part of an overarching effort to end discrimination against people living in poverty.
While discrimination against voucher holders has been around for a long time, local ordinances to ban the practice picked up steam in the past year. Los Angeles and San Jose both passed similar policies over the summer.
All told, 16 Californian cities and counties have already passed similar ordinances, according to Howard’s presentation. If passed, Santa Rosa’s law would be the first banning “source of income” discrimination in Sonoma County.
At a state level, State Senator Holly Mitchell introduced legislation—Senate Bill 329—to ban source-of-income discrimination statewide. The bill passed the state Senate but still needs to pass the Assembly.
The California Apartment Association, which represents the state’s rental owners, opposes SB 329, arguing the bill would be an unfair regulatory burden on apartment owners.
On Friday, Aug. 30, the bill was approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Combs says the city council will still consider a local ordinance, whether or not the state legislation is passed.
Among the roughly 25 public speakers at the council meeting, several landlords and property managers spoke against the item, asking for city council members to offer more incentives for landlords to support the legislation.
“The ordinance is bad at a very high level. The way it’s written, the incentives are not there for housing providers … the outreach was not there in any sort of significant measure,” Keith Becker, a local property manager, said at the meeting.
After over an hour of public comment, mostly in support of the policy as written, the council agreed to move the item to its Sept. 24 meeting, citing a lack of outreach to stakeholders.
“I don’t think win-win is possible all the time, but I think we can do more to make this work for renters and landlords,” Councilmember Combs said at the August meeting.
Councilmember Chris Rogers asked city staff to return in September with a “menu of options” to win support for the law from landlords.
Examples of such incentives can be found in Marin County.
In 2016, the Marin County Housing Authority launched the Landlord Partnership Program, which started as a two-year pilot program to increase the supply of homes available to voucher-holders in part by providing incentives to landlords.
“With a vacancy rate of 2 percent, high rents and a negative perception of Section 8, [the Housing Authority’s] clients were losing their vouchers because they could not find a unit,” a report summarizing the program states.
The incentives in Marin’s program included providing security-deposit assistance for voucher holders and compensation for landlords who were left with an empty apartment while waiting for a new Section 8 tenant, as well as reimbursements for landlords who claimed a voucher holder damaged their rental property.
Councilmember Combs says that, while she does not believe Section 8 voucher holders damage their rentals very often (if at all), she is still willing to consider setting up a Damage Mitigation Fund—a pool of money to reimburse landlords—in order to win broader support.
“I don’t anticipate that it will be needed,” says Combs, “but it doesn’t hurt to put some money aside.”
The Marin Housing Authority came to a similar conclusion.
“Although this is not a common occurrence, it is unfortunately a stigma our clients face,” the Marin Housing Authority report says about the perception that Section 8 tenants are more likely to trash rental properties.
The program could help increase the number of landlords renting to voucher recipients in Santa Rosa. Between 2016 and 2018, the Marin Housing Authority was able to add 90 new landlords who rent to voucher holders.
Combs says she hopes to deal with this concern at the council’s Sept. 24 meeting, when the council will also consider overhauling the city’s rental inspection program. In addition to mandating regular rental inspections rather than inspections based on complaints, Combs hopes the changes will reduce the amount of time landlords need to wait for an inspection.
Section 8 discrimination is a vexing problem, says Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, and one his county has pledged to resolve with its landlord-protection ordinance that was just budgeted another $450,000. Not only does the Marin program provide backup for landlords, it also draws a page from the housing-first supportive-housing model: Section 8 tenants also get visits from case managers as part of the program. The county’s problems are not dissimilar to Sonoma’s: “People have the vouchers, but can’t find the housing,” Rodoni notes.