Lynette Mason lived on the streets for nearly six months after receiving a Section 8 housing voucher from the Santa Clara County Housing Authority.
She made more than 200 phone calls in the first month alone as she struggled to find a place that would accept her subsidy. She says most landlords wouldn’t even return her call, and many of those who did told her unequivocally: “No Section 8.”
“It’s like dangling a carrot in front of a rabbit that’s starving,” Mason lamented. “They were giving them out left and right it seemed like and there was nowhere to go.”
On Tuesday night, the San Jose City Council voted 9-2 to protect voucher-holders like Mason by barring landlords from rejecting prospective tenants with rental subsidies. Council members Sergio Jimenez and Raul Peralez were the dissenting votes.
Last year, the San Jose Housing Department conducted a review of listings on apartments.com and Craigslist and found that only 5 percent of property owners said they’d accept subsidized vouchers.
San Jose now joins the ranks of 42 other cities in the nation that have adopted policies to protect voucher holders. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act currently prevents discrimination based on a person’s “source of income,” however, the law doesn't classify housing subsidies as income.
Caroline Peattie, executive director of Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, said she believes cities are working to correct what the state law left out.
“I think there are more and more jurisdictions that are understanding that we have a housing criss and affordable housing is not easy to come by,” she told San Jose Inside in an interview ahead of the council vote this week. “In general, we have vulnerable populations that are low-income and they are folks who disproportionately represent groups who are supposed to be protected by fair housing law.”
San Jose’s protections will include all types of rental units except for single-family homes where the landlord currently resides.
In an effort to bring landlords up to speed before hitting them with violation notices, the council also voted to abstain from any civil legal action for the first six months. Instead, the landlords will be given a one-time warning for that period.
“We’re introducing a new rule into a system,” Councilman Lan Diep explained. “People know they shouldn’t discriminate on gender, race, etcetera, but now we’re introducing this concept of income discrimination. I think we need time to adjust.”
The idea—proposed by a number of council members including Johnny Khamis, Pam Foley, Dev Davis, Diep and Vice Mayor Chappie Jones—was inspired by feedback from landlords. During the city’s outreach, property owners expressed the need for education so they wouldn’t be unfairly penalized for not understanding the new rules.
Jacky Morales-Ferrand, San Jose’s housing director, said she agrees that it will take some time to adjust. “It takes numerous touches for somebody to get the message,” she noted.
But a few of the other council members—namely Magdalena Carrasco, Sylvia Arenas and Jimenez —objected to what they saw as a needlessly lengthy adjustment period.
“Im not happy with the six month delay. I’m going to agree to it only because you need time Jacky,” Carrasco told San Jose’s housing director. “I feel like we’ve waited such a long time. It’s been four years.”
“I think what’s lost [from the discussion] is the plight of the poor folks marching around the city with voucher in hand with nowhere to go,” Jimenez added.
CM @D2SergioJimenez joking, "There's tons of sausage making going on today."
Lots of back and forth happening today on a bunch of various provisions.
— Grace Hase (@grace_hase) August 14, 2019
Once in effect, the city will have a number of enforcement options, such as issuing a citation or suing a landlord. But those measures won’t be without obstacles. “I think the bigger challenge is if someone went through an application and then was denied housing, that would require some kind of investigative work,” Morales-Ferrand conceded.
Khamis, Foley, Davis and Diep also wanted to add a provision to the law that would give property owners a 30-day right to cure period before legal action could be taken. That time would at least allow for arbitration.
“This regulation as it stands could open up lawsuits for anybody,” Khamis said, noting that people could bypass the housing department for the courts.
Khamis says that as the proposed law stands it "could open up lawsuits for anybody." He notes that people could bypass the Housing Department and go straight to the courts.
— Grace Hase (@grace_hase) August 14, 2019
Arenas didn’t take kindly to the proposal.
“For me this is real simple, don’t discriminate and you won’t get fined,” she said. “I see this as an opportunity to talk more freely about Section 8 vouchers.”
Housing officials resolved the debate by amending the law to say that if someone wants to take legal action, then they must first notify the housing department.
The initiative will come back for another reading and is slated to go into effect Sept. 26.
City officials also plan to return council in six months with updates on a slew of metrics, including the number of new landlords entering into Housing Assistance Payment contracts with the county’s Housing Authority and the average number of weeks it takes for new program participants to receive initial rent payments.