Santa Rosa council to tackle housing voucher discrimination

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For 14 years, Calvin rented a modest bungalow in the city’s Burbank Gardens neighborhood.

Then, in December, his landlord delivered some disturbing news.

Calvin, a 56-year-old former Hewlett-Packard employee who requested his last name not be used, his wife and 9-year-old daughter were being evicted in the middle of the tightest rental market in memory.

The landlord said he planned to move his nephew into the home and Calvin and his family needed to leave.

Disabled because of a previous heart attack and health conditions that required him to receive regular dialysis treatments, Calvin worried he wouldn’t have the money to relocate.

Luckily, several years earlier, Calvin had entered his name on the long waiting list to receive a subsidized housing voucher from the city of Santa Rosa, and a few months earlier he’d been told a voucher was available for him.

Then came the hard part — finding a landlord who would take it.

“It was a hard search, I’m telling you. Nobody seems to want to take them,” Calvin said of the vouchers.

Building after building, landlord after landlord, property manager after property manager told him that his subsidy, known as a “Section 8” voucher, wasn’t being accepted by anyone these days.

At one property management firm, he barely got the words out of his mouth before he was told they weren’t taking people with the subsidized rent payments.

“I don’t think I got in the front door,” Calvin said this week. “I sat there and I asked the Lord, please don’t let me and my family be on the street.”

Housing advocacy group Homeless Action conducted a survey last month of housing ads on Craigslist and concluded that 90 percent of the ads either rejected outright or avoided inquiries from people with Section 8 vouchers.

That’s tantamount to discriminating against poor people, said Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs, who presented the report to her council colleagues and urged them to do something about the problem.

The council voted unanimously to instruct city staff to explore the issue and come back with some solutions.

Landlords are not required to accept people seeking to use housing vouchers. In fact, they need to be approved by the city as having a suitable rental before they can accept such tenants. There are about 1,800 people in the city receiving such vouchers, with an average subsidy of about $750, according to Rebecca Lane, a program specialist with the city’s housing department.

Low-income participants in the city-administered program typically pay about 30 to 40 percent of their income, while the subsidy, from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, pays the balance, up to certain limits.

One of the problems is those limits haven’t adjusted upward to keep up with the 30 percent increase in rents over the past several years, Lane said. That may make fewer landlords willing to accept Section 8 vouchers.

But it’s not simply that rents have outpaced the subsidized rates. The survey conducted by Carolyn Epple looked only at housing advertisements with rents of $1,500 or less. People with vouchers can afford rents, depending on the unit size, from $828 per month for a studio to $1,888 for units with five bedrooms or more.

Nevertheless, landlords still either rejected outright or ignored inquiries in 90 percent of the cases, Epple found.

Of the 30 ads reviewed, Epple said she could only get three to say they accepted vouchers. Fully 20 of the ads reviewed, or 67 percent, stated plainly on the ad or website that they don’t accept the vouchers, according to the survey.

That tells Combs that landlords with plenty of demand for their units are rejecting tenants for reasons other than their ability to pay, which she said is wrong.

“I’m calling that discrimination,” Combs said.

Some communities, including Santa Monica, Woodland and Corte Madera, offer protections for low-income renters, Lane said. Measures include banning discrimination based on type of income and requiring landlords to accept Section 8 tenants, she said.

Some of the reluctance to accept Section 8 tenants is less about the rates paid but about the idea of being involved in a government program with paperwork and other requirements, such as inspections and the possibility of making upgrades to meet the standards, Lane said.

The city tries to be efficient to keep as many landlords accepting Section 8 and veteran tenants as possible, but there are standards they need to enforce, she said.

“The whole point is that this is safe and decent housing, so if the roof is caving in, it’s going to have to be fixed before the tenant can move in,” Lane said.

The city doesn’t have a lot of historical statistics to show how much harder it has become for people to find housing, but for 43 percent of those who receive vouchers, it takes 120 days or more to find a suitable rental. There are currently 69 families with vouchers looking for housing, Lane said.

In Calvin’s case, it took more than a month of looking, and he finally reached out to Combs for help. She put him in touch with the manager of developer Hugh Futrell’s new downtown building called Humboldt Apartments.

Calvin and his family were able to get into one of the 51 affordable apartments, a three-bedroom, 1½ -bath unit that’s even larger than the living space of his former bungalow. He didn’t know exactly how much he pays for the unit, but the city voucher likely picks up a large portion of the $1,286 rent.

Combs said she sees the issue as related to the larger discussion about homelessness that the City Council is planning to have next week. She said she hopes the federal subsidy rates will be adjusted upward soon.

“But that will only help people if landlords consider taking it,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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