Santa Monica’s Enforcement of Section 8 Housing Protection Law Off to a Successful Start
City resolves 11 housing discrimination complaints in favor of Section 8 tenants
February 6, 2019
SANTA MONICA, Calif. – The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office (CAO) has just resolved its eleventh complaint of housing discrimination using a new city law that protects Section 8 housing voucher holders. In each of the eleven cases, local landlords had told an applicant or existing tenant that they would not accept Section 8 tenants or vouchers. After the CAO’s intervention, all eleven tenants now have affordable housing using the Section 8 program.
The Housing Voucher Program (also known as “Section 8”) is a federal program run here by the Santa Monica Housing Authority. It helps low-income tenants find an affordable and decent place to live. Approved tenants pay 30 to 40 percent of their annual income toward rent; the voucher covers the rest of the rent.
“The voucher program brings us all a win-win-win opportunity,” said Deputy City Attorney Gary Rhoades. “The tenant gets safe, decent housing; the landlord gets steady income and tenant-relations help from the City, and the City frees up housing resources for the next person in need.”
By 2016, however, many local landlords had adopted blanket discrimination policies against Section 8, even for situations where the current rent was below what the owner would get with Section 8. The impact on low-income residents during what was already an affordable housing crisis was severe: they were spending time and money applying for apartments, only to get turned away because of the voucher. Some vouchers expired or the tenants had to take them outside of Santa Monica. Existing tenants who had obtained vouchers rejected by their landlords were forced to continue to survive under an extreme rent burden.
In light of the problems caused by Section 8 discrimination, the Santa Monica City Council added “source of income” to the City’s list of tenant classes that are protected from discrimination. (Race, national origin, disability, family and other classes are already protected by state and federal fair housing laws.) This new law now prevents landlords from refusing to rent to a person based on government-sponsored assistance like Section 8. It does not require landlords to reduce rents.
Each of the CAO’s eleven settlements has used the new protection to create and save tenancies. The resolutions came with collaborative efforts among the CAO, the City’s Housing Division, and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA). The successful enforcement also comes after the CAO, LAFLA and the Western Center on Law and Poverty (WCLP) had defeated a state court lawsuit by the Apartments Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA) challenging the City’s Section 8 law.
The tenants and applicants each have different situations, but all were in need of affordable housing when the CAO’s intervention occurred. Here are a few of their stories:
- A 61-year-old African-American woman who has lived in Santa Monica for fifty years was blocked from applying at a large apartment building after the management there told her in writing that they do not accept Section 8.
- A severely disabled tenant with traumatic brain injury was told by his current landlord that he could not use his new Section 8 voucher to pay rent. The tenant was using 90 percent of his income on rent, at the expense of many other basic needs.
- A low-income, single woman has been looking for a home in Santa Monica and thought she had finally found the perfect apartment and rent. But the property management company informed her by email that they didn’t take Section 8.
- A landlord served 90-Day Notices on three different Section 8 tenants in Santa Monica. The landlord stated that he no longer wanted to participate in the Section 8 program.
- A 73-year old, severely rent-burdened Latina tenant finally came off the Section 8 waiting list and obtained a voucher that would enable her to keep her home of twenty years. However, the landlord balked at accepting the Section 8, refusing to even respond to her efforts to use the voucher.
In each of these cases, the CAO sent the landlord a demand letter citing the new law and then worked with the Housing Division (especially Senior Specialist Anna Topolewski) and LAFLA (esp. Senior Staff Attorney Denise McGranahan) to eventually persuade the owner to accept the voucher. The owner in the first example above liked the program so much that it rented to two more Section 8 tenants. The CAO has also used the law to get owners to accept temporary payments from third parties, such as PATH (Projects in Assistance to Transition from Homelessness) funding secured by the St. Joseph’s Center.
“The law is serving well its purpose of bolstering affordable housing,” said Rhoades. “It has enabled the City to get private landlords to be part of the solution. Also, the diversity of this first group of tenants we’ve helped is a great sign for our community.”
If you have questions about the new law or believe you have suffered discrimination as a Section 8 voucher holder, please contact the City Attorney’s Office at 310-458-8336.