San Jose Bans Discrimination Against Renters With Housing Vouchers

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Under a new law, landlords in San Jose cannot discriminate against potential renters who have housing vouchers, like Section 8.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Following hours of debate, the San Jose City Council voted unanimously Tuesday evening to block landlords from discriminating against would-be tenants who use housing vouchers, like Section 8, to subsidize rent.

The ordinance prevents landlords from refusing to rent units based on an applicant's legitimate source of income, including government housing vouchers. It also prevents landlords from including any prohibitive language in their apartment listings.

"This is an opportunity for Section 8 voucher holders to be right in front of a landlord and have that person-to-person interaction, and I think that’s where we’re gonna make a difference," said Councilwoman Sylvia Arenas. "And hopefully we’ll see an increase in those vouchers. You’re not accepting a Section 8 voucher, you’re accepting a person."

San Jose, one of the least affordable housing markets in the nation, joins a spate of other cities that have introduced source-of-income legislation. Most recently, Los Angeles passed a similar measure in June, and a statewide bill is currently being considered in the Legislature.

The ordinance offers renewed hope to voucher holders like Demetria Spikes, a San Jose resident who can't afford to rent anything at market rate in the city's brutal housing market, and has for years been unable to find a landlord who accepts Section 8 vouchers. As a result, she said, she's been homeless for the past five years, and often sleeps on buses.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by San Jose's Housing Department, housing vouchers were not accepted at about two-thirds of all rental units listed on Craigslist.

Spikes said the constant rejection makes her "feel like a loser at life." Sleeping on the bus every night, she added, can be a scary and unsettling experience.

"You don't know who's gonna sit by you or what kind of mood they're gonna be in," she said. "Some of them get on the bus with knives."

Demetria Spikes said she's been trying to use her Section 8 voucher for the past five years. She is currently homeless. (Sonja Hutson/KQED)

Spikes said she usually only sleeps about three hours a night. That, combined with ongoing depression and anxiety, makes it even harder for her to find a job and a place to live.

Research shows Section 8 non-discrimination laws are effective at helping voucher holders like Spikes. In cities that have passed such measures, voucher-rejection rates are 42% lower than elsewhere, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"It really shows you that if we have some intentionality about the laws that we pass in trying to prevent discrimination, that we can make an impact for families and their access to housing," said Peggy Bailey, a housing policy expert at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The numbers are less clear, however, on whether these laws help voucher holders move into wealthier, more desirable neighborhoods. Landlords in low-poverty areas in most cities have higher-than-average rejection rates, regardless of non-discrimination laws, according to the HUD study.

"It's leading to families being overly concentrated in communities that have high crime rates, high poverty and see poor outcomes for children," Bailey said. "They're typically low-income areas and they're also typically places that have a higher percentage of people of color living in them."

That trend flies in the face of the Section 8 program's original goals: to help reduce residential segregation.

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Housing advocates also argue that rejecting Section 8 vouchers has become a proxy for landlords to discriminate based on race and class. Nationwide, most voucher holders are racial minorities, according to HUD. In San Jose, roughly 86% are people of color.

"For someone's racism basically to lead to a family being unable to be have a place to live should be unacceptable," Bailey said.

Landlords, however, dispute this contention.

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"That whole argument about discrimination is so old," said Debra Carlton, a spokeswoman for the California Apartment Association. "I mean, we're not in the 1960s anymore. You know, we have laws against that kind of discrimination."

Renting to Section 8 tenants also comes with additional hurdles for landlords. Units first have to be inspected by a local housing authority. A landlord must then sign a lease with a tenant as well as a separate agreement with the housing authority. The approval process can take up to two months, per federal guidelines.

"The biggest issues with the program are more procedural," said Michael Pierce, president of Prodesse Property Group, which manages almost 500 units in San Jose. "That's one of the biggest issues when you've got a smaller owner who doesn't have a lot of units. They may not be able to afford to wait two months because they've got mortgage payments and other things that they've got to make for their property."

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo acknowledges the bureaucracy and red tape can be a major deterrent for landlords.

"The housing authority is working with us on trying to iron out some of those challenges to make it as easy as possible," he said. "I'm hopeful that we're able to get to that place where we're able to tell every landlord: 'Yes you can do it. It's easy.' "

According to Bailey, educating landlords about Section 8 non-discrimination laws is key to ensuring the new laws are effective. The City Council also approved funding Tuesday for a new full-time position dedicated to educating landlords about the program.

The city also plans to monitor rental listings for violations. Under the new law, it could sue repeat offenders for up to $10,000 or hit them with hefty fines.

Landlords can still reject tenants based on credit scores or rental history. They can also raise their rents above the maximum rent allowed by the Section 8 program in order to sidestep the ordinance altogether.

"None of our strategies are silver bullets," said San Jose Director of Housing Jacky Morales-Ferrand. "They're all taken together. They help us move the needle and get more people housed."

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