San Jose Bans Landlords From Rejecting Renters with Housing Vouchers

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Following hours of debate, the San Jose City Council voted unanimously Tuesday evening to block landlords from discriminating against would-be tenants who use housing vouchers, like Section 8, to help subsidize rent.

The ordinance prevents landlords from refusing to rent units based on an applicant’s legitimate source of income, including government housing vouchers. It also prevents landlords from including any prohibitive language in their apartment listings.

San Jose, one of the least affordable housing markets in the nation, joins a spate of other cities that have introduced source-of-income legislation. Most recently, Los Angeles passed a similar measure in June, and a statewide bill is currently being considered in the Legislature.

The ordinance offers renewed hope to voucher holders like Demetria Spikes, a San Jose resident who can’t afford to rent anything at market rate in the city’s brutal housing market, and has for years been unable to find a landlord who accepts Section 8 vouchers. As a result, she said, she’s been homeless for the past five years, and often sleeps on buses.

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According to a 2018 survey conducted by San Jose’s Housing Department, housing vouchers were not accepted at about two-thirds of all rental units listed on Craigslist.

Spikes said the constant rejection makes her “feel like a loser at life.” Sleeping on the bus every night, she added, can be a scary and unsettling experience.

“You don’t know who’s gonna sit by you or what kind of mood they’re gonna be in,” she said. “Some of them get on the bus with knives.”

Demetria Spikes said she’s been trying to use her Section 8 voucher for the past five years. She is currently homeless. (Sonja Hutson/KQED)

Spikes said she usually only sleeps about three hours a night. That, combined with ongoing depression and anxiety, makes it even harder for her to find a job and a place to live.

Research shows Section 8 non-discrimination laws are effective at helping voucher holders like Spikes. In cities that have passed such measures, voucher-rejection rates are 42% lower than elsewhere, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“It really shows you that if we have some intentionality about the laws that we pass in trying to prevent discrimination, that we can make an impact for families and their access to housing,” said Peggy Bailey, a housing policy expert at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The city also plans to monitor rental listings for violations. Under the new law, it could sue repeat offenders for up to $10,000 or hit them with hefty fines.

Landlords can still reject tenants based on credit scores or rental history. They can also raise their rents above the maximum rent allowed by the Section 8 program in order to sidestep the ordinance altogether.

“None of our strategies are silver bullets,” said San Jose Director of Housing Jacky Morales-Ferrand. “They’re all taken together. They help us move the needle and get more people housed.”

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