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It's now illegal for landlords to discriminate against Section 8 recipients, but enforcement could be tricky

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After years of hard labor and loyalty, Carolyn Goodson left the company she'd been with for more than two decades with next to nothing.

Goodson spent 23 years manufacturing cottage cheese and yogurt containers for a Los Angeles-based company that, when faced with significant financial challenges, abruptly moved its services to Canada toward the end of her career. She'd been paying into the company's pension program the whole time, but after it moved, she was told she wouldn't get a dime for retirement.

'NO SECTION 8' Although a new law making it illegal for landlords to discriminate against Section 8 recipients went into effect on Jan. 1, some still are. - SCREENSHOT FROM CRAIGSLIST
  • Screenshot From Craigslist
  • 'NO SECTION 8' Although a new law making it illegal for landlords to discriminate against Section 8 recipients went into effect on Jan. 1, some still are.

Some of her coworkers hired lawyers and tried to fight it, but Goodson didn't have the time or resources.

"I'm just a common laborer," Goodson, now 82, said. "That's all I ever was. But I worked hard for my money and ended up with just a little Social Security."

She wasn't sure how she'd support herself throughout her old age. Then about 14 years ago, Goodson applied for and was granted Section 8, a government-funded program that gives seniors, individuals with disabilities, and those earning low wages vouchers to help cover the cost of housing. The vouchers cover a majority of the cost of monthly rent for their recipients and are paid directly to landlords by local housing authorities.

"Section 8 is a miracle," Goodson told New Times. "I'm telling you it's a miracle. Not only for families but for us seniors who have worked all of our lives to have something."

While Goodson was able to find an apartment in Arroyo Grande within about two months—a Peoples' Self-Help Housing apartment she still lives in to this day—she's aware that not everyone is so lucky.

Many landlords and property management companies don't accept applications from individuals with Section 8, and Goodson said she knows people who had to search for nearly a year to find someone willing to accept housing vouchers.

"I'm just thankful I have a roof over my head," she told New Times.

A new state law, Senate Bill 329, was passed in an effort to change all that, and it went into effect on Jan. 1. The law makes it illegal for landlords to discriminate against potential tenants using public assistance and housing subsidies.

Although state law has long prohibited housing discrimination based on a number of personal characteristics, including a potential tenant's source of income, a loophole allowed property owners to decline applicants using housing vouchers solely for that reason. As previously written, state law defined "source of income" as any verifiable income paid directly to a tenant. Since Section 8 vouchers are paid directly to landlords rather than tenants, housing vouchers weren't considered a "source of income," and tenants with such vouchers weren't protected by the law.

The new law changes that definition to include housing subsidies paid directly to landlords.

That's a step in the right direction if you ask Krista Jeffries, a Grover Beach resident and the founder of SLOCo YIMBY, an advocacy group working to tackle the housing crisis.

It's not a "silver bullet" to fixing the state's housing problems, but Jeffries said the recent changes to the law will force property owners and landlords to give Section 8 applicants a fair shot.

Property owners who didn't accept applications from Section 8 recipients in the past may find that the program isn't as fraught with abuse as they previously thought, she said. There's a stigma shadowing government programs like Section 8 and the individuals who use them—namely that recipients are lazy, messy, and won't make rent.

In reality, Jeffries said, a lot of Californians are eligible for Section 8, and considering the state's high cost of living, the program is the only thing keeping many seniors and disabled individuals off the streets. She hopes this new law will help at least some landlords see that.

"I think it'll help," she told New Times. "I do."

Property owners who haven't accepted applications from individuals using Section 8 have their reasons for doing so, according to Derek Banducci, a broker at California West, a real estate management company that acts on behalf of property owners. Banducci said he's had properties that were held off market for Section 8 approval for several weeks only to then be declined. He's had clients who were forced to accept less than market rent because of a Housing Authority formula that was inconsistent with true market conditions. He's also had difficulty evicting problematic tenants using Section 8.

But mostly landlords' reluctance boils down to bureaucracy. Dealing with the Housing Authority and its many regulations is often more costly for property owners than not, and Banducci said it "makes a visit to the DMV seem efficient and pleasurable."

Companies like California West exist to help property owners navigate that system, but the costs that can't be avoided—accepting lower than market rental rate, vacancy expenses while waiting for a unit to be approved for Section 8—add up.

While Banducci said he doesn't expect this law to lead to any dramatic changes, it's likely that more Section 8 tenants will be approved by California West from now on.

But some of the SLO County apartments advertised on Craigslist still contained "No Section 8" tags days after the new law went into effect on Jan. 1.

The changes aren't protected by federal fair housing law, so the federal government isn't charged with enforcing the new anti-discrimination provisions. Instead, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing is tasked with enforcement, but hasn't launched any enforcement actions thus far, according to Deputy Director of Communications Fahizah Alim. The agency does, however, plan to send notices to California landlords regarding the changes, Alim said.

Scott Smith, executive director of the Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo (HASLO), said his organization is monitoring Craigslist rental ads. When HASLO finds or is contacted regarding a property owner not accepting applicants with Section 8, Smith said HASLO contacts the landlord and "gently" informs them of the changes to state law.

That process includes providing information on what Section 8 is and who it really helps. More than 60 percent of the 2,200 Section 8 households in SLO County are elderly or disabled, Smith said. Those individuals, who typically rely on a fixed income, are at a high risk of homelessness.

Smith said he also wants landlords and property owners to know that they can still use all of their usual tenant selection criteria, including credit checks and previous landlord references.

"They just cannot turn someone down or prevent them from applying because they have Section 8," Smith wrote in an email to New Times. "They have to allow the person/applicant to 'make their case' why they will be a good tenant." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@newtimesslo.com.

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