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New Santa Monica Law to Prohibit Discrimination Against Section 8 Tenants

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

May 8, 2015 -- Reacting to reports of discrimination by Santa Monica landlords against Section 8 tenants, the City Council Tuesday gave the initial go-ahead to a new law that would ban such actions and impose severe court fines and other penalties against those found in violation of the new ordinance.

The council voted unanimously, and without comment, in favor of the new law, which prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to tenants based on their source of income, such as those holding Section 8 vouchers.

 “You asked for this ordinance because there has been some evidence from both members of the community and city staff that work in the housing division that persons were experiencing difficulty obtaining housing that seems to be related to their income, and that is particularly true of Section 8 tenants,” said City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie.

Aside from amending the City’s Housing Anti-Discrimination law, the ordinance gives judges the power to award civil damages as high as $10,000 and to impose injunctions or court orders that put an immediate end to the discrimination, officials said.

Denise McGranahan of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles told the council there is no federal or State of California law that prohibits discrimination against Section 8 tenants.

She said the Section 8 program – which serves about 2 million households overall -- is “plagued by discrimination. Various nationwide studies have shown that landlords refuse to accept Section 8 about 40 to 50 percent of the time.”

That is even the case when the vouchers match market rate for a rental.

Discrimination is most severe, she said, in wealthier communities like Santa Monica, where landlords are refusing to accept Section 8 payment even if it could bring them more for a unit than they make under rent control.

McGranahan said it is a form of harassment, because landlords refuse an existing tenant’s Section 8 payment in hopes that the renter will be forced out, and the unit can then be returned to market rate.

The consequences for those who face discrimination can be dire, McGranahan said. They have to move in with relatives, into shelters or even end up on the streets, she said.

Studies have shown landlords discriminate against Section 8 vouchers as a “pretext” for discriminating against minorities, the disabled and families with children, McGranahan added.

Those populations are “over represented” in Section 8, including in Santa Monica, as compared to the general population.

Another problem is that Section 8 vouchers must be used within 90 days or renters lose them, McGranahan said. As a result, she said, many Section 8 renters give up on communities like Santa Monica and end up living in the minority neighborhoods where vouchers are more readily accepted.

Santa Monica City Councilmember Sue Himmelrich, an attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said the discrimination is a problem particularly noticeable among the elderly with Section 8 vouchers.

“We’d like these people to be able to stay in their homes,” she said after the vote. “This is a fix for that, we hope.”

No one representing landlords spoke at the hearing Tuesday. However, landlord representative Rosario Perry of the Action Apartment Association recently denied landlords are discriminating against Section 8 renters, saying that many have been wary about entering into contracts with the City. (“Santa Monica Seeks to Codify Ban on Income Discrimination,” May 5, 2015)

Perry said a lawsuit would be filed once the new law is given final approval. 

Proving discrimination in court will be a challenge, City officials have acknowledged.

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