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City Told to Pay Tenant Benefits

Times Staff Writer

Families living in housing rehabilitated by the City of San Diego may receive as much as $4,000 from the city in back benefits, Superior Court Judge Milton Milkes has ruled.

Under Milkes’ ruling, the San Diego Housing Commission is required to compensate tenants for the increased rent they have paid since their homes or apartments were renovated by the city. The Housing Commission provides inexpensive financing for landlords who rent to low-income families.

The city has long offered rent increase compensation, moving expenses and temporary housing to families whose homes it rehabilitates. But Wednesday’s settlement in the class-action lawsuit, filed by the San Diego Housing Coalition 16 months ago, requires the housing commission to offer benefits to families in a wider income range and improve its system of informing people of their eligibility for the back benefits.

Charles Wolfinger, attorney for the Housing Coalition, a nonprofit tenant’s group, said only a few of the eligible tenants have received rent increase compensation. The housing commission, he charged, has ignored the California Relocation Assistance Act, which requires cities to give assistance to families with an annual income less than 120%--$33,000--of the median area income in San Diego.

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The commission operates under a federal Housing and Urban Development program which assists families of four who earn less than 80%--$22,000 a year--of the median area income. The HUD program paid any rent over 30% of the family’s income, but Wolfinger said the city did not inform most eligible people that the assistance was available. Only “a handful of tenants” received benefits, he said.

Bob Ross, the Housing Commission’s rehabilitation director, admitted that the commission did not actively inform tenants that they were eligible for compensation on rent increases made after their homes were rehabilitated. Rather, tenants had to seek out information.

“Before, we played it by ear,” he said. “We have been providing assistance but not to the extent the Housing Coalition would like.”

Ross described the state statute as an “obscure law” which no other city in California follows.

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