Santa Rosa punts ordinance to prevent discrimination against low-Income renters

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A statewide movement to forbid discrimination against low-income home renters hit a roadblock in Santa Rose on Tuesday.

Asked by the city’s housing department to adopt a local law that would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against renters with federal housing vouchers to help them pay monthly rent, Santa Rosa City Council members punted.

Rather than vote on an anti-discrimination ordinance, council members wavered after property managers objected and decided to delay any resolution on the measure until Sept. 24.

The ordinance would offer protection for about 2,000 city residents, including 50 fire survivors and some 400 veterans who have been issued housing vouchers.

Heather Dunn, a supporter of the law who helps veterans in search of housing, said the ordinance “isn’t forcing anyone” to rent to tenants who would pay with Section 8 vouchers. “It’s about giving them an opportunity to apply.”

Dunn said she’s working with 35 veterans seeking housing with vouchers. It’s taking 120 to 160 days to find housing for them, she said.

The city’s ordinance mirrors California legislation, which passed the state Senate in June and is pending in the Assembly.

Similar local statutes already have passed in Novato, San Rafael and Santa Monica, among other California cities.

Another is being considered in San Jose.

Despite this statewide momentum, and a severe shortage of affordable housing in Santa Rosa exacerbated by the 2017 Tubbs fire, the ordinance was sent back to the drawing board for revisions. The decision to kick the can down the road was prompted by concerns from landlords who said the city did not consult them closely enough. They fear a loss of income resulting from being forced to work with tenants who have federal subsidies because of the purported red tape involved.

“I’m not opposed to the mission” of providing housing assistance, said Keith Becker, who owns a property management firm in Santa Rosa told council, “but I am opposed to this ordinance, which forces individual housing providers to enter into a contractual relationship with a governmental agency, with all the inherent and predictable difficulties of doing so.”

Shelley Clark, a housing policy attorney with Legal Aid of Sonoma County, cited the plight of the dozens of people who lost homes in the wildfire two years ago, then were allocated housing vouchers by Rebuilding Our Community Sonoma County.

“It’s a lifeline for some of the most vulnerable fire survivors, low-income families and seniors with disabilities,” Clark said before Tuesday’s council meeting. “They get the voucher, they’re so happy, and then they go on Craigslist and see, ‘No Section 8.’”

That’s legal right now in Sonoma County. Federal housing vouchers that go directly from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to a landlord are not considered income by the tenant.

“This ordinance corrects that,” Clark said.

Despite a full-throated recommendation for the local law from Carmelita Howard, deputy director of the housing and community services for Santa Rosa, council members Tuesday tapped the brakes early and often.

After acknowledging the depth and severity of the city’s housing affordability problem, councilwoman Julie Combs questioned the amount of “stakeholder outreach” the city had conducted, and expressed interest in a fund from which landlords might be reimbursed for damage done to their properties by tenants holding Section 8 housing vouchers.

“I don’t know why you think a voucher holder would be more likely” to trash a rental unit “than someone else,” Casey Epp, an attorney for the nonprofit Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, said after the council meeting.

Indeed, voucher holders are less likely to trash their rentals, because of the strong possibility that if they do so, they will lose their vouchers.

Epp also questioned the landlords’ claims that government-mandated inspections of their properties would cause delays of weeks and months, depriving them of rental income.

The city’s proposed ordinance will be revised between now and Sept. 24. More community input will be sought and sweeteners for landlords will be added.

Miles Burgin, a council candidate, acknowledged the landlords’ concerns but told council members something needs to be done to help low-income renters.

He was off by six weeks.

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