Feb. 27 2013 10:02 AM

Local court case highlights lack of housing options for folks on government assistance

It took Carol Murphy more than six months to find a suitable apartment where she could use her Section 8 voucher.
Photo by Kelly Davis
Carol Murphy guesses she was turned away from roughly 60 apartments before finding the one where she currently lives with her 16-year-old daughter. It's not San Diego's tight rental market that made the search so difficult; it's the fact that Murphy relies on the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program— also known as Section 8—to pay her rent.

While landlords aren't allowed to reject potential tenants based on gender, race, religion, national origin, family status or disability, they may refuse tenants enrolled in Section 8. Search local rentals on craigslist, for instance, using the words "no Section 8" and you'll get dozens of results—29 among the listings posted on Feb. 25 alone—of landlords who won't accept the voucher.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program was created in 1983 to combat urban poverty by giving voucher holders the chance to move to better neighborhoods via rental assistance. Section 8 tenants pay one-third of their income toward rent; the federal government pays the rest of an amount determined by family size and the local rental market. Increasingly, though, there are questions as to whether the program's doing what it set out to do. A local analysis, published in March 2011, noted the large concentration of voucher-holders in lower-income parts of San Diego County. In the city of San Diego, six out of every 10 voucher holders live in the zip codes that include City Heights, southeastern San Diego, Logan Heights and Barrio Logan.

Fewer and fewer landlords outside those areas accept vouchers, the report noted.

"In a tight housing market, landlords are typically able to capture high rents for the units and less likely to participate in government programs that place restrictions on rents, policies and quality standards. Primarily in economically depressed neighborhoods, where the housing and neighborhood conditions are less than ideal, voucher recipients are most likely to find rental units that accept voucher payments."

Murphy first applied for Section 8 in 2005 when she was living in Massachusetts. A high-school English teacher, she'd recently been laid off from her job and was combatting severe depression and degenerative bone disease. It would be several more years before she secured her voucher; by that time, she'd moved to San Diego with her daughter. Unable to work, her disability check was her only source of income.

She wanted to live in Ocean Beach. She liked the vibe, and both she and her daughter had friends in the area. And, she found, the cooler coastal temperatures made her health problems easier to deal with.

"I wanted us to stick close to our support system and our stomping grounds," she says. "I don't like to drive long distances, plus [there's] the price of gas, and I'm on a limited income."

She received her voucher on Jan. 15, 2011, giving her 60 days to find a place to live. She requested, and was granted, two extensions. At one point in her search, she was sleeping in a friend's laundry room. Finding a suitable place to live "was like a quest for the holy grail," she says.

In late July, she found a two-bedroom apartment just off West Point Loma Boulevard. She looked at the unit and talked to the on-site manager, who told Murphy that she'd need to speak to the property owner, Carmen Fullbright, about her voucher. According to a complaint filed in federal court last fall, Fullbright asked Murphy to meet her at her office. There, the complaint says, Fullbright asked Murphy about her disability and told her "she was reluctant to accept Section 8 because most people receiving Section 8 were disabled and… she did not want to rent to anyone who had a mental impairment or emotional problems."

In court filings and through her attorney, Fullbright denied saying this.

Murphy had a friend with her who heard the conversation.

"I can't believe all that stuff that woman was saying," Murphy says her friend told her.

"I said, ‘OK, I think that she might have broken the law. I don't want you to say anything else to me. I want you to go home and write down anything you remember hearing,' and then I called Ann.'" 

"Ann" is Ann Menasche an attorney with Disability Rights California.

The federal Fair Housing Act says that landlords can't use disability as a reason for rejecting a tenant. But, the fact that Fullbright, according to the lawsuit, didn't accept Section 8 so as to keep disabled tenants out of her building raised an interesting legal issue.

"Never before has any court addressed a landlord's refusal to accept Section 8 vouchers when the landlord declares that his or her motive for doing so is discriminatory—that is, where the landlord intends to exclude from housing a class of persons protected under fair-housing laws," Menasche wrote in a court brief.

Fullbright ultimately agreed to settle the case for $62,500 without admitting guilt. Murphy was able to find a place on the border of Clairemont and Bay Park that accepted vouchers; the property manager's mom had been on Section 8.

"It's not like I'm getting an amount of money that's going to be life-changing or take me off of Section 8," Murphy says. "It's the only way to punish people like that, by having it on record. What I ultimately wanted to do is make this process better for others. I don't really feel like I got there yet."

At least a dozen states forbid what's called "source of income discrimination," meaning landlords can't refuse to rent to people on public assistance. Affordable-housing advocates thought California had such a law in place until a 2008 case involving L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Sterling, who made his money in real estate and has been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for housing discrimination, refused to accept a disabled widow's voucher, even though she'd been his tenant for two decades before needing rental assistance. An appeals court noted the sensitive nature of the case, but found that the California Legislature never intended for the law to apply to Section 8.

"There's a big carve-out, which essentially enables property owners to legally discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders," says Liam Garland, a former civil-rights attorney who's working with a coalition of Northern California housing advocates to get legislation enacted that would protect voucher holders from being denied housing solely because they rely on Section 8. He acknowledges that it'll be a tough case to make.

"Some landlords think of Section 8 as meaning folks who commit crimes or undesirables that they wouldn't want. So, I think that's one aspect of the opposition," Garland says. "Another is the more traditional conservative argument that government shouldn't be playing a role in the private rental market—that's probably the most consistent thing we hear from apartment-owners associations."

Indeed, in the Sterling case, the California Apartment Association filed a brief asking the court to "preserve the voluntary nature of the Section 8 voucher program." In other matters, the National Apartment Association and National Multi Housing Council have argued that the program's been plagued by "inefficiencies and onerous bureaucratic requirements"—local housing authorities have to OK the lease and schedule an inspection before the tenant can move in, for example— that make participation unattractive to landlords.

For the San Diego County Apartment Association (SDCAA), at least among its members, it's a different story.

"A lot of property owners in the region, they welcome Section 8 housing," says SDCAA spokesperson Tony Manolatos. "One, it's altruistic reasons. Two, it's a steadier line of business for them than regular renters. With regular renters, there's a turnover rate of 65 percent a year. Section 8, it's lower than that; you have more consistent renters."

Pinning down why a landlord won't accept Section 8 is tough. Last year, the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC) started asking voucher holders to submit a form whenever their rental application was denied. So far, says SDHC spokesperson Maria Velasquez, they've received only two.

Garland says that without testing for discrimination, it's difficult to tell why a landlord might turn down a tenant. A study in Chicago, for instance, tracked landlords' response to white voucher holders versus black and Latino voucher holders, finding that people of color were more likely to be turned away.

"You could have landlords who, really, their intent is to discriminate based on other things, like race, but they'll use Section 8 as a proxy for that—to say, I'm not saying I don't want African-Americans and Latinos in my unit, but instead I want no Section 8 because I associate Section 8 with those protected groups."

Menasche frequently hears from disabled folks who believe it's their disability, not the voucher, that caused the denial.

"It's a pretext for a lot of people to say, no Section 8, because, that way, they can eliminate, or reduce dramatically, a whole population they don't like."

A decade ago, SDHC received federal funding to administer a program with the goal of opening rental opportunities for voucherholders. The Fair Housing Council of San Diego (FHCSD) was hired to implement the program. While it wasn't aimed at combatting discrimination, says FHCSD executive director Mary Scott Knoll, a major component was reaching out to reluctant landlords and educating them on fair-housing laws and how Section 8 works. Funding for the program ended in 2002; Knoll said she tried for several years to get it renewed, with no luck.

"This Section 8 issue is much more complicated and harder to educate about," she says "And, there fore, the absence of complaints, I don't think has to do with the lack of a problem. Obviously, there is one if people can't move and we put them in a cycle of poverty."

Email kellyd@sdcitybeat.com or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.


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