David Van Court. Photo by Madeleine Pauker.

David Van Court has lived in his apartment off Pico Boulevard for almost 19 years. He has furnished it with armchairs and rugs inherited from his parents, trailing houseplants and teddy bears.

Last year, he almost lost his home when his landlord refused to accept his Section 8 voucher.

Van Court has a severe disability that makes it impossible for him to work in most settings. His father was able to pay the rent on his small apartment in Santa Monica for more than a decade and his sister stepped in to cover the rent when his father died, but with a family of her own to support, she couldn’t pay it forever.

Van Court applied for a Section 8 voucher to stay in his home. Low-income tenants in the program pay 30 to 40 percent of their monthly income in rent and the Housing Authority pays the rest of the rent directly to the landlord.

Tenants in the program cannot rent apartments that are priced higher than the market rate, as determined by the Housing Authority. The Santa Monica Housing Authority caps payment at $1,512 for a studio, $1,930 for a one bedroom, $2,640 for a two bedroom and $3,366 for a three or four bedroom unit.

Van Court waited to receive a voucher for months, which is typical for Section 8 applicants, and was spending almost all of his income from disability benefits on rent. When he finally received one, he emailed his rental company that he had qualified for Section 8 assistance.

“We do not want to accept or be involved in any city rent program,” his property manager wrote in a November 2017 email.

Van Court reached out again last March. Once again, his rental company told him it did not accept Section 8 vouchers.

“This program will be great for you,” his property manager wrote. “Unfortunately this is not a program we will participate in.”

Neither federal nor state law prohibits landlords from denying a Section 8 voucher. But Santa Monica City Council had passed a law in May 2015 preventing housing discrimination based on a tenant’s source of income, including Section 8 vouchers.

Van Court didn’t know about the law. He received an informational binder with his voucher, but it did not include information about local laws pertaining to Section 8.

Still, he wrote a letter to the City of Santa Monica outlining his situation. Deputy City Attorney Gary Rhoades called him into City Hall for a meeting, where he informed him that it was illegal for his rental company to reject his voucher and wrote a letter to Van Court’s property manager that said the City would take legal action against the rental company if it did not comply with the law.

The company accepted the voucher. Van Court said it’s still hard to make ends meet, but he is glad he was able to stay in his home.

Since City Council passed the law against income-based discrimination in 2015, the City Attorney’s Office has settled 11 cases similar to Van Court’s.

One landlord served three different Section 8 tenants with eviction notices because he no longer wanted to participate in the program. Another told a severely-burdened tenant who had been approved for a voucher that she could not use it to pay rent on her home of twenty years.

In each case, the City Attorney’s Office sent the landlord a demand letter citing the new law and then worked with the Housing Division and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles to eventually persuade the owner to accept the voucher.

One landlord liked the program enough to rent to two more Section 8 tenants, Rhoades said.

“The tenant gets safe, decent housing (and) the landlord gets steady income and tenant-relations help from the City,” he said.

Rhoades believes landlords who have not participated in the program, however, are often anxious about completing extra paperwork or undergoing inspections. Landlords have to write a lease for the tenant and a contract with the Housing Authority, and every two years the Housing Authority checks whether the unit meets basic housing quality standards, such as having a working stove and hot water.

Many landlords do dread the extra layer of bureaucracy that comes with Section 8, said Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Apartments Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA). AAGLA unsuccessfully sued Santa Monica over its income-based discrimination law, claiming it conflicted with state code.

Yukelson said inspections are a particular sticking point among landlords. He said one property owner wanted to rent an apartment to a veteran with a Section 8 voucher, but an inspector found an electrical outlet in the apartment that did not work and the prospective tenant was without housing for more than a month while the owner waited for another inspection.

AAGLA held a meeting with landlords last October to send recommendations to the Department of Housing and Urban Development on the Section 8 program. Allowing tenants to move in while property owners made minor repairs was one of the recommendations, Yukelson said.

While many landlords might refuse to participate in the program because of administrative concerns, some have more nefarious reasons to reject Section 8 tenants, Rhoades said.

Many of the tenants in the 11 settlements were people of color or had disabilities. State and federal fair housing laws prohibit discrimination based on race, national origin, disability and other attributes, and some landlords refuse vouchers as a way to legally discriminate against protected classes, Rhoades said.

Section 8 discrimination impacts minority populations regardless of whether landlords are prejudiced against them, however, because a disproportionate number of tenants in the program are minorities.

“This law is part affordable housing measure and part civil rights measure,” Rhoades said. “We’ve always emphasized the affordable housing part of it, but it’s really helping preserve Santa Monica’s diversity as well.”

Rhoades said nearby cities are looking to Santa Monica’s income-based discrimination law in crafting their approach to the regional housing and homelessness crisis. San Diego banned Section 8 discrimination last August and Los Angeles is considering an income-based discrimination law. Los Angeles County is also drafting similar legislation.

City Councilmember Sue Himmelrich said she introduced the law knowing that it would be an effective way to address Santa Monica’s affordable housing crisis. While building more housing will help in the long run, laws that keep low-income people in their homes have a greater short-term impact, she said.

“We have a terrible shortage of housing being built for low-income people and an excess of housing being built for high-income people,” she said. “I think a lot of the dialogue around the housing crisis ignores the fact that even if there were a trickle-down effect of building more market-rate housing, it would come 40 years in the future and we have a problem today.”

madeleine@smdp.com

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