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Seeing Fair Housing and COVID-19 with 20/20 Vision

May 1, 2020
by Gary Rhoades

Seeing Fair Housing and COVID-19 with 20/20 Vision

This blog post is part of a series on the Santa Monica Daily Press called Consumer Corner


It’s the last day of national Fair Housing Month, a month in which the COVID-19 pandemic has brought certain fair housing issues into sharper focus.

Our federal, state, and local fair housing laws together prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of several categories, including but not limited to race, national origin, color, religion, gender, disability, familial status, sexual orientation, age, and source of income. During the pandemic, housing advocates and enforcement agencies such as the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office (CAO), are especially concerned about discrimination based on national origin, disability, and age.

National media reports have described incidents of discriminatory harassment against persons from China and other Asian countries and those perceived from being from such countries. The harassment is apparently based on the invalid perception that China or persons from China are somehow responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.  If a landlord, for the fair housing example, used that stereotype in an adverse housing action such as harassment of a tenant or an attempted eviction, that would be evidence of national origin and even race discrimination under the fair housing laws.

Also, while COVID-19 understandably causes fear and requires cautionary measures, someone with an actual or perceived disability related to COVID-19 is still protected from housing discrimination. For example, a tenant with a disability-related to COVID-19 cannot be evicted or harassed or receive less favorable housing terms because the fair housing laws prohibit discrimination based on disability. The fair housing laws also prohibit discrimination against someone who is associated with or has a history with a protected category and this could include someone who has recovered from COVID-19 or a health care worker or first responder who might have more exposure, actual or perceived, to COVID-19.

Here in Santa Monica, the pandemic has already intersected with housing and fair housing in several other ways:

  1. Eviction Moratorium. The City was one of the very first in the state to respond to the pandemic and economic shutdown with an eviction moratorium. The moratorium, which began on March 14, allows Santa Monica residents to stay in their homes with protections from most types of eviction, including those where a tenant cannot afford to pay rent due to financial impacts related to COVID-19. The moratorium, along with the City’s Ten-ant Harassment Ordinance, also protects tenants from harassment (including coercive tactics to force tenants to pay rent they can’t afford) and discrimination.
  2. Landlord Entries into Homes. While COVID-19 itself does not discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, or religion—it can strike any-one—it does discriminate against persons with disabilities, medical conditions, and age in harsh ways. Tenants with respiratory or heart conditions or who are elderly have much longer recovery periods and even higher death rates from the virus and therefore must avoid exposure as if their life depended on it. The Consumer Corner piece “Limitations on a Landlord’s Entry into Tenant's Home During the COVID-19 Emergency” in the March 27 issue of the Santa Monica Daily Press discussed landlord entries in full. The City has since added protections and guidance in its emergency order that prohibit landlords from enforcing entries in all cases except when they must remedy a condition that endangers the life or safety of tenants or could cause substantial damage to the property. In the cases in which such dangerous conditions exist, or with the tenant’s consent, the landlord still has the obligation not to permit entry by any person who is, or who the landlord has good cause to believe is, a COVID-19 carrier. The landlord must also ensure that appropriate social distancing, cleaning, and sanitation measures are taken to protect from the risk of transmitting COVID-19 during the entry.
  3. Reasonable Accommodations. The City’s fair housing law requires landlords to provide tenants with disabilities with reasonable accommodations (such as emotional support animals) and reasonable modifications (such as wheelchair ramps). Though these requirements are in no way suspended during the pandemic, it is now much more difficult to obtain medical certifications for accommodations as medical offices are either closed or overwhelmed with work. Landlords should accept self-certifications from ten-ants whenever possible during the emergency period.

On the community education front in Santa Monica, the social distancing, teleworking, and shelter in place orders have prevented the CAO’s Public Rights Di-vision (PRD) from hosting any in-person fair housing forums for Fair Housing Month, but the PRD has not been otherwise deterred. The PRD’s Zoom-friendly staff members have spoken in webinars and podcasts hosted by the Housing Rights Center, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, and the Santa Monica Daily Press. They have also published information and FAQs about tenants’ and landlords’ rights and responsibilities during the pandemic.

The PRD also continues to sponsor its annual fair housing poster contest. The idea of COVID-19 bringing fair housing issues into sharper focus coincidentally resonates with the theme of this year’s contest, in which over 300 local students participated. The 2020 theme was “Let’s See Fair Housing with 2020 Vision,” pun intended.

Alison Miranda, an eighth-grader in Ms. Mendez’s class at Saint Anne School, submitted the poster that accompanies this article. As one can see in the lenses of her spectacles, Alison’s piece is a genius play on the theme of 20/20 vision. It won the 2020 Judge’s Award and in normal times would have been displayed this week with nine other student posters in the lobby of City Hall. Instead, it is being published here today and will be available on the CAO’s website.

Thus, while COVID-19 has caused a housing crisis of epic proportions—one that the Public Rights Division works to lessen each day—fair housing issues and education have not been left out of sight. To the contrary.

If you would like to file a fair housing complaint or have questions about fair housing, please call 310-458-8336 or email consumer.mailbox@smgov.net.

For questions about the City’s eviction moratorium, call the City Coronavirus Hotline at 310-458-8400 or go to santamonica.gov/coronavirus.

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