Proposed San Diego law would prohibit landlord bias against people with federal housing vouchers

Aiming to prevent discrimination against the poor and minorities in a tight housing market, San Diego is considering a new law that would prohibit landlords from rejecting tenants because they use federal vouchers to help pay their rent.

Supporters say allowing landlords to blackball people who qualify for federal vouchers is partly responsible for San Diego’s stark racial segregation, with minorities dominating southern areas and whites dominant in northern areas.

More than 85% of the 36,000 people in San Diego with secured federal vouchers are minorities, the vast majority of whom live south of Interstate 8.

San Diego would be following the lead of San Francisco, Santa Monica and several other cities by passing such an anti-discrimination law, which would force landlords only to consider applicants with vouchers, not require them to be chosen as tenants.


Critics say the proposed law, which the City Council is scheduled to debate in late July, aims to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist. They stress that all households in San Diego that qualify for vouchers, often called Section 8 vouchers, have secured housing.

They also say the law would force landlords to deal with an onerous federal bureaucracy that brings with it mountains of paperwork, inspections and difficulty securing rent increases.

“We have to be fair to all sides,” Councilwoman Lorie Zapf said during a meeting last week of the council’s Smart Growth and Land Use Committee. “These are mom-and-pop owners. I guess I’m not ready to say it’s quite ‘discrimination.’ ”

Councilwoman Georgette Gomez, however, said preventing discrimination against the poor and minorities should be a priority.

“Our city has a responsibility to ensure all San Diegans have access to housing opportunities throughout the city,” she said. “Protecting our families on Section 8 from discrimination is important for reducing undue barriers in an already tight rental market.”

Gomez stressed that landlords would retain the right to reject applicants with vouchers for various reasons, but they just couldn’t have a blanket policy of not considering any applicant with a voucher.

Gomez showed her colleagues several apartment ads on the Craigslist website that stipulated applicants wouldn’t be considered if they planned to use federal vouchers to help pay their rent.

Molly Kirkland, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Apartment Assn., explained the reasons for such blanket rejections of voucher holders.

“This is not about the voucher and this is not about the persons who hold them,” Kirkland told the committee. “Our concerns are entirely about the program and procedures.”

She said that landlords with a small numbers of units don’t have the staff to deal with the required paperwork, and that inspections required for all Section 8 rentals often take weeks to schedule.

Rick Gentry, chief executive of the San Diego Housing Commission, said the process is simpler than critics say. He said inspections are appropriate to require when taxpayer funds are helping subsidize a rental.

People who qualify for federal vouchers typically pay 30% of their income in monthly rent, and the Housing Commission uses federal money to cover the difference.

The local subsidy from Section 8 vouchers is about $150 million a year, Gentry said, with the average recipient receiving about $10,000 a year.

In conjunction with the proposed law, Gomez suggests creating a $1-million fund that would pay landlords if tenants using vouchers damage property or fail to pay their rent.

Gentry said the Housing Commission had success with a similar fund created to encourage landlords during a recent three-year effort to house 1,000 homeless veterans.

Councilman Scott Sherman, however, said the $1 million would be diverted from the fund used to help cover rent, potentially depriving 100 families from securing voucher-assisted housing.

“While the motivations of this proposal are well-intended, it could inadvertently take away much-needed funding used to house needy San Diego families,” he said.

Sherman also raised questions about how the law would be enforced.

The committee deadlocked 2 to 2 on the proposal, with Zapf and Sherman opposing the plan and Councilman David Alvarez joining Gomez to support it.

The proposed law is scheduled for consideration by the full, nine-member council on July 31.

Garrick writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.