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Disabled Tenant Sues Santa Monica Landlord For Refusing Housing Voucher
By Jorge Casuso
March 3, 2020 -- A disabled 72-year-old tenant sued her Santa Monica landlord Monday for refusing to accept a housing voucher needed to pay the rent-controlled apartment she has occupied for 38 years.
The complaint by Zandra St. James -- which mirrors a similar lawsuit filed by the City -- claims that the property's owner, Barbara Bills and WIB Holdings, violated state law by refusing to accept the Section 8 voucher she obtained in 2018 after 21 months on the waiting list.
St. James "urgently needs" the subsidy relief because nearly all of her $995 monthly income goes to pay the $925 rent, according to the lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.
After paying the rent, St. James is left with less than $100 and "regularly visits food banks to get free food to supplement her meals and buys little else for herself," according to the suit.
The lawsuit argues that by rejecting the voucher, the defendants are attempting "force Ms. St. James to leave her apartment so they can dramatically increase the rent for another tenant," the lawsuit states.
The City Attorney's office filed "a very similar" lawsuit against the defendants using Santa Monica's anti-housing discrimination and tenant harassment ordinances, said Deputy City Attorney Gary Rhoades.
The defendant filed a demurrer that will be heard next January, Rhoades said.
"In the meantime, Bills and her attorney agreed to reduce the monthly rent to what Ms. St. James would be paying if she was using the Section 8," he said.
"I’m glad Ms. St. James has filed her own case with LAFLA and we will try to get our cases related and consolidated," Rhoades said.
Approved in 2015, Santa Monica's anti-housing discrimination ordinance prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to tenants based on their source of income, such as those holding Section 8 vouchers.
The law imposes severe court fines and other penalties against those found in violation of the law ("New Santa Monica Law to Prohibit Discrimination Against Section 8 Tenants," May 8, 2015).
Last year, the California Legislature passed SB 329, a similar law prohibiting discrimination against tenants based on the use of subsidies.
“The housing choice voucher program is designed to expand housing opportunities for low-income renters of all kinds,” said Legal Aid attorney Denise McGranahan. “It is also critical that low-income seniors like Ms. St. James can age in place.
"If Ms. St. James’ landlord is able to refuse her voucher, she will be priced out of one of the few below-market units left in Santa Monica," McGranahan said.
"The voucher is her lifeline to stay in her long-term home and to continue to live independently in the community.”
The Maximum Allowable Rents (MAR) in the eight-unit apartment building at 2435 2nd Street range from $796 to $3,200 per month, according to the City's Rent Control Board.
In 2014, the City sued the owners after three tenants at another building claimed Bills entered their respective apartments to document living conditions while claiming to inspect smoke detectors and leaky faucets.
Bills allegedly took photographs or video "then had her attorney send each tenant false and intimidating notices about their homes that threatened termination of the tenancy,” the suit said.
Bills' attorney could not be reached for comment by deadline.
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