For the homeless and those teetering on the edge of homelessness, housing vouchers are supposed to be a ticket into safe, stable housing. Federal Section 8 vouchers and other forms of rental assistance use public dollars to make up the difference between what a person can afford to pay and the rent they’re being charged.
But at a time when cities and counties are increasingly relying on vouchers to help reduce homelessness, many landlords won’t even consider leasing to tenants whose rent would be paid, in whole or in part, by the government.
The problem is particularly acute in cities with high rents and low vacancies. In Los Angeles, nearly half the people trying to use a Section 8 voucher had it expire in 2017 before they could find a place to live, up from 18% in 2011.
Several cities, including San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco, have already banned discrimination against tenants with Section 8 and other housing vouchers. The Los Angeles City Council voted this week to draft an ordinance doing the same, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is exploring a similar law.
But California can’t end housing discrimination on a city-by-city basis. State lawmakers need to go further and pass Senate Bill 329, which would enact the ban statewide. The state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act already makes it illegal for landlords to discriminate on the basis of a tenant’s “source of income,” but the prohibition doesn’t cover subsidies or vouchers that go straight to the landlord. The bill would make clear that landlords cannot reject tenants solely based on the fact that their rent is partially paid by the government.
SB 329 wouldn’t require that landlords rent to subsidized tenants. Landlords simply would have to treat tenants who receive rental assistance the same way they’d treat other prospective tenants. Property owners would still be able to screen tenants for rental or credit history, check references and set other common standards.
The purpose of SB 329 is to end the rampant discrimination that blocks voucher holders from even being considered for an apartment, regardless of their ability to pay the rent. Housing advocates argue that landlords too often adopt blanket “No Section 8” policies as a way to discriminate against the poor — and by extension, against the minorities and families who would otherwise have been protected by federal fair-housing law.
A Housing and Urban Development Department-funded study released last year found that Section 8 voucher holders are denied by landlords at very high rates. In Los Angeles County, for example, 76% of the landlords contacted refused to accept vouchers. In affluent communities in the county, 82% of landlords wouldn't take vouchers. Denial rates were lower in cities that prohibited discrimination against voucher holders.
Landlords argue that high denial rates aren’t driven by discrimination but by the paperwork, inspections and restrictions that come with rental subsidy programs. For example, it's hard to raise the rent, even modestly, on voucher tenants.
Plus, they note, the supposed “market rent” the federal government is willing to cover is often too low in California’s overheated markets, where the bigger problem is a lack of affordable housing units.
These are legitimate concerns. HUD and housing agencies need to reduce bureaucratic barriers for landlords and make sure voucher-funded rents are realistic for high-cost cities. In addition, state and local authorities should expand incentives for landlords who accept vouchers.