San Jose to consider prohibiting landlords from snubbing Section 8 renters

For years, landlords have shut the door on prospective tenants who receive housing subsidies to help pay rent. But now, voucher holders in San Jose may be getting their fair shot at securing housing in the private rental market.

Next week, the San Jose City Council will vote on adopting an ordinance aimed at reducing income-based discrimination against individuals who pay their rent with vouchers, restricting landlords from openly advertising “No Section 8” on listings. If passed, the initiative — called the housing payment equality ordinance — will prohibit a landlord from rejecting a potential tenant who receives financial support from rental assistance programs.

“By adopting this ordinance, voucher holders and rental assistance recipients may have a higher likelihood of finding housing in the San Jose,” Housing Department Director Jacky Morales-Ferrand and Assistant Budget Director Jim Shannon wrote in a report to the City Council.

City officials said rental subsidy holders experience “greater challenges to finding housing in San Jose than non-subsidized tenants,” and are typically “low-income, rent-burdened, and more vulnerable to homelessness.”

“This discrimination results in fewer opportunities for low-income tenants to find affordable housing, making it more difficult to afford other basic necessities for themselves and their family, and greatly increasing the chance of losing the rental voucher,” Morales-Ferrand and Shannon added.

If adopted, the ordinance will be the first of its kind in San Jose that protects voucher-holders from being turned away by landlords. Supporters say the ordinance is an important step that the city is taking to prevent homelessness and enforce stronger tenant protections.

The city is also looking at an anti-displacement policy to further bolster renter protections amid the historic housing crisis, San José Spotlight reported.

All rentals will be covered by the ordinance, which includes “single family homes, duplexes, multiple unit dwellings with three apartments or more, co-living apartments, accessory dwelling units, guest houses, and mobile homes.”

The single exemption are rooms rented within a single-family home that the landlord lives in.

“Obviously, I think it’s needed. We don’t want people discriminated against, especially because they’re poor, right?” said San Jose Councilmember Sergio Jimenez. “But I’m a little embarrassed that it’s taken this long.”

Jimenez said that “about 2,000 or so” housing vouchers are going unused in San Jose because landlords are rejecting those individuals. To prevent that from happening, Jimenez said it’s important “to break down those barriers” by implementing ordinances such as the housing payment equality ordinance.

According to the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, the housing choice voucher program — commonly known as Section 8 vouchers — is the most common form of subsidized housing in Santa Clara County with about 17,000 participants. In San Jose alone, 84 percent are people of color.

Other vulnerable communities are also heavily affected, city officials said.

City data shows that 52 percent of voucher holders have a disability, 20 percent are families with a relative who has a disability, 31 percent are families with small children, and 8 percent are formerly homeless.

“Lots of places do advertise ‘no Section 8.’ People put in application after application after application and they’re just not able to get housing anywhere,” said Erika Fairfield, senior attorney at the Silicon Valley Law Foundation.

According to Fairfield, if individuals cannot use their vouchers or find anywhere to go, they may be displaced from their communities or potentially be forced onto the streets.’

“They’re losing their community, they’re losing their access to health care, they’re losing their support system,” she added, “or if they just aren’t able to move because that’s not an option for people as well, it does push people onto the streets. That’s a huge problem.”

But many landlords are concerned with the proposed policy and don’t like the idea of being forced into accepting renters with vouchers. Many say they’re worried that housing a bad tenant who has a voucher will cost them unnecessary expenses for repairing property damages, getting rid of bed bugs, or grappling with eviction and legal fees.

“I’ll decline to rent to any and every tenant with an expiring income source because they are not credit-worthy and a proven financial risk,” said San Jose landlord Jeff Zell in a letter to the city’s housing department. Zell said that renters with nonprofit subsidy vouchers can’t pay their rent after those vouchers reach their 12 month expiration date.

After Zell inherited a couple of buildings with tenants funded by Abode Services and the Bill Wilson Center, “all 12 tenants left after their subsidy expired for nonpayment of rent.” He said that despite the small sample size, the experience had a “100 percent failure rate.”

According to a landlord survey from the city housing department, 39 percent of landlords refused to accept vouchers, with at least 27 percent of them saying they’d advertised that no vouchers would be accepted.

But some city leaders say that Zell’s depictions don’t reflect the majority of voucher holders.

“Oftentimes landlords, when they present some of these examples, it’s often the worst case scenario. But likewise we can provide the worst case scenario on the other end, right?” added Jimenez. “You’ve got those people who are Section 8 voucher holders that pay their rent on time, are responsible, but they’re just down on their luck. They’re poor.”

In California, similar non-discrimination ordinances have been enacted in cities such as Berkeley, San Diego, San Rafael, and as of June 2019 — the city and county of Los Angeles. In total, 13 jurisdictions across the state have adopted similar ordinances.

At the state level, lawmakers have introduced SB 329, which proposes an amendment to California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. If passed, the bill will expand statewide protections against income discrimination, applying to landlords that discriminate against voucher holders.

The City Council will vote on the local ordinance at its meeting Tuesday.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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