A Craigslist ad for a “sunny and charming” one bedroom apartment “close to everywhere” might catch your eye if you were looking for a place to rent in Berkeley. But if you’ve got a federal low-income housing voucher, you’re out of luck. No section 8 allowed.
Postings like these may soon be illegal in Berkeley.
Last week, the city council took preliminary action to prohibit landlords and rental agents from refusing to rent to someone based on their source of income. Elected officials and tenant rights advocates said their goal was help more people on a federal subsidy programs for low income and disabled people find housing. If the ordinance is approved on a final vote Sept. 12th, Berkeley would become the first East Bay city to pass such a law.
“This doesn’t end discrimination against Section 8 but it does take away some of the blatant screening that goes on and opens the door so that some people will get housing,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “It also gives you a way to appeal if you think that’s happening.”
Under the law, landlords could not refuse to rent to a person solely because they are on housing assistance or give preference to someone whose entire income is earned from a job as opposed to receiving a government subsidy. Violating the ordinance carries a potential fine of up to $1,000 and or jail time for up to six months. A tenant is also entitled to receive up to $400 in damages in addition to fees charged by attorneys.
Leah Simon-Weisberg, managing attorney of the Tenant Rights Program at Centro Legal de la Raza, said landlords would be required to accept applications from people with housing vouchers.
“If three people have section 8 and one doesn’t, you don’t have to accept the section 8 (person) but you do have to evaluate (him) the same way as someone who doesn’t have Section 8,” Simon-Weisberg said. “They have to look at each individual as though Section 8 were just money.”
Marin, East Palo Alto and San Francisco have similar ordinances.
“What’s important is, communities that have passed this have seen, on average, 12 percent usability of Section 8 vouchers,” Simon-Weisberg said. “If we got an increase of 12 percent of people who can find housing that would be a major miracle.”
However, Jon Vicars, vice president of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, said he didn’t think the new ordinance would have much of an effect at all.
“I think most property owners won’t put ‘no Section 8’ in an ad, but when we talk to the prospective tenants we’ll say we’re not interested in the program,” Vicars said. “We’ve had Section 8 tenants and we still do, but it’s far more trouble to deal with the housing department than it is otherwise and that’s the issue.”
The Federal Choice Housing Program, or Section 8, provides housing assistance to very low-income and disabled people. The government pays the subsidy directly to the landlord and the renter pays the difference — usually no more than 30 percent of their gross income for rent and utilities.
When rents were lower, property owners had more of an incentive to work with the program. But in today’s hot housing market, a number of landlords have stopped taking the housing vouchers. According to city officials, there are 300 people in Berkeley with Section 8 vouchers who haven’t been able to use them.
They pour in to the Berkeley Drop-In Center every week looking for help. Christina Murphy, a housing care specialist there, said many are homeless. Yet Murphy has concerns about the proposed new law, though well-intended.
“Do we have the manpower to enforce this? asked Murphy. “Or is everyone going to have to go to the East Bay Law Center and small claims court?”
Murphy also questioned how tenants and landlords would be informed about the new law and said there needed to be better community outreach.
Alfreda Washington, who is 54 years old and disabled, sought help at the Drop-In Center. She has had a Section 8 voucher for nearly three decades, but was going to have to move out of her Emeryville apartment when her landlord raised the rent. She tried to return to Berkeley, where she had lived previously, but couldn’t find a place that would accept her housing voucher.
“I had four months of stressful, sleepless nights,” she said. “But thank God I was blessed and finally found another place in Emeryville.”