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Home | Newsroom | Miscellaneous | After inewsource report, officials offer plan to cap rent hikes for low-income tenants.

After inewsource report, officials offer plan to cap rent hikes for low-income tenants.

January 23, 2024

San Diego tenants with a Section 8 housing voucher could soon see the same protection against excessive rent increases as everyone else in the private housing market.

The San Diego Housing Commission, which hands out roughly $300 million every year in vouchers to help low-income tenants pay rent, last week proposed capping rent increases at a maximum of 10% over a 12-month period in the federal safety net program.

If approved, the change would cap rent hikes for voucher holders at levels already set by state and local tenant protection laws.

Some tenant rights advocates and attorneys say the policy change is long overdue and simply would bring the San Diego Housing Commission into compliance with state laws the agency should have been following all along. They also point out that federal guidelines already say laws limiting rent increases should be taken into consideration before approving increases.

“It’s extremely concerning that the Housing Commission does not seem to be acknowledging that they have to follow the Tenant Protection Act,” said Madeline Howard, a senior attorney with Western Center on Law and Poverty, where she works for tenants’ rights and people experiencing homelessness.

Howard was referring to the state law that caps increases at 10% for many properties.

Local housing officials, however, have denied breaking the law. They say the state’s cap doesn’t apply to federal Section 8 voucher holders. That’s a position advocates, some housing authorities and the state attorney general all say is wrong.

For perspective:

An individual who lives alone and earns $77,200 or less per year is considered low-income in San Diego. Qualifying residents face up to 15 years on a waitlist for federal housing assistance.

But now the Housing Commission is proposing the change anyway, promoting it as a way to help maintain housing stability and prevent evictions, and foster an environment where landlords implement rent increases that are measured and incremental, rather than sudden and significant.

“We are constantly seeing policy choices — for example, around ticketing people who are residing in their vehicles — where small costs become destabilizing and then balloon into large costs that we all have to deal with as somebody becomes increasingly unstably housed,” Ryan Clumpner, vice chair of the Housing Commission’s board, said Friday after the presentation.

The agency’s announcement of the rent increase policy is timely.

It comes two months after an inewsource investigation revealed the agency has been approving rent hikes without checking to ensure they comply with the state’s cap. It also follows a lawsuit filed in San Diego Superior Court in November asking a judge to end the Commission’s “practice of approving and subsidizing illegal rent increases.” The lawsuit also asks the court to compel the agency to recover all public funds illegally paid to private landlords.

Shortly after inewsource published the investigation, the Housing Commission’s then-interim CEO told elected leaders the agency didn’t think state law applied to the federal program.

The San Diego Housing Commission building is shown on Nov. 6, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

The disagreement started in 2020 when the California Tenant Protection Act took effect, capping rent increases for many properties. But some housing agencies, including in San Diego, didn’t see that cap as applying to Section 8 voucher holders, among the most vulnerable residents in any community. San Diego housing officials have pointed to an opinion written by legislative attorneys one month after the law took effect as their guidance.

Conflicting interpretations of law in state government

In an attempt to settle the debate last summer, California Attorney General Rob Bonta sent a letter to every public housing agency in the state. He said the law clearly protects voucher holders and warned officials to stop approving unlawful rent increases on low-income families the federal program was intended to protect.

A Housing Commission spokesperson declined to comment Friday on the proposal or answer any questions related to it. The Housing Commission’s board could vote on the proposal next month. Officials anticipate it would take effect sometime this fall, pending approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which pays for the Section 8 program.

Attorneys and advocates have been asking the Housing Commission, which is responsible for approving rent increases on Section 8 voucher holders, to follow state law for the past four years, said Gil Vera, a senior attorney with the Legal Aid Society of San Diego.

Vera said he wonders what relief might be in store for tenants whose rents were already approved for more than the cap, and he’s concerned about what could happen to tenants until the Housing Commission decides to act.