For first time, California civil rights officials file lawsuit alleging Section 8 discrimination
California civil rights officials have sued two Sacramento landlords, alleging they illegally harassed and evicted a tenant because she paid through a Section 8 voucher.
The lawsuit, announced Wednesday, is the first brought by the state Civil Rights Department under a 2020 state law making it illegal for landlords to refuse to accept tenants who pay with subsidies like Section 8. It comes amid criticism from tenant advocates that the department hasn’t adequately enforced the law.
“Throughout the State, rental housing costs are climbing further out of reach for many Californians,” department Director Kevin Kish said in a news release announcing the lawsuit. “Source-of-income discrimination by housing providers exacerbates this trend and is unlawful.”
The Section 8 program is one of the U.S. government’s most powerful tools to keep rental housing affordable and to fight overcrowding and homelessness.
Administered by local agencies, Section 8 enables tenants to find housing with private landlords. The rent that tenants pay is capped at around a third of their income, with the federal subsidy making up the difference.
The demand for vouchers far exceeds supply, and low-income households can languish on waitlists for years.
In the lawsuit, filed last month in Sacramento County Superior Court, the state Civil Rights Department alleges that landlords Carlos and Linda Torres sent their tenant, Alysia Gonsalves, an eviction notice stating that they “decided to remove house from Section 8 program completely.”
After the tenant told them that evicting her for that reason was illegal, the landlords harassed her, threatened her with violence and “unlawfully locked her out of her home,” the department said in a news release.
The eviction notice and harassment were prompted by the tenant’s refusal to continue making additional monthly payments that the Torreses had demanded but were not required by the voucher program, according to the lawsuit.
The Torreses could not immediately be reached for comment. No one answered at a phone number listed in an online database for a Carlos Torres associated with the single-family home that Gonsalves rented, and the voicemail was full.
Other attempts to reach Carlos and Linda Torres were also unsuccessful.
For decades, many California property owners refused to rent to Section 8 voucher holders, citing concerns over government red tape or a belief that they are bad tenants.
Then in 2020, the new state law took effect. Advocates say the landlords’ perceptions are inaccurate and can reflect negative stereotypes of low-income individuals as well as the people of color who make up a majority of voucher holders.
Under the law, landlords aren’t required to rent to every Section 8 household but cannot refuse to consider someone merely for having a rental subsidy.
Landlords are also barred from discriminating against voucher holders in other ways, such as charging higher rent or refusing access to common areas like the pool or gym.
Despite the new protections, tenant advocates say voucher discrimination remains common and have called on state and local authorities to increase enforcement and education of landlords about the 2020 law.
In the Sacramento case, after Gonsalves said she would stop making the side payments, the Torreses told her they were “not here to support government leeches” and called the tenant, whom they perceived to be Black, the N-word, the complaint alleges.
After the Torreses locked out Gonsalves, who has a physical disability, they didn’t allow her to retrieve the furniture, medical equipment and family heirlooms she had left behind, the complaint said.
When she finally was given access months later, “many of her personal items had been damaged or destroyed,” according to the complaint.
The agency is seeking monetary compensation on Gonsalves’ behalf. The lawsuit also alleges that the Torreses discriminated against Gonsalves based on her race and color, as well as her disability.
Denise McGranahan, a senior attorney and source-of-income expert with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said the Civil Rights Department needs more funding to better investigate voucher discrimination. But she called the filing of the first lawsuit a “positive development.”
“Part of what happens when they file a lawsuit like this is it has a deterrent effect on other landlords who say, ‘Oh, my God, if I do this, this may happen to me,’” she said.
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