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Fact check: Do all San Diego housing agencies see state tenant protection laws as irrelevant?

February 16, 2024

During a public meeting last November, a top elected official asked the San Diego Housing Commission to explain the findings of an inewsource investigation.

The Housing Commission, which is responsible for managing roughly $300 million in federal Section 8 housing vouchers to help low-income tenants pay rent, is required to ensure rent increases are reasonable before using taxpayer money to pay for them. But officials were approving rent hikes without checking if they exceed the cap in state law, the investigation revealed.

Jeff Davis, the Commission’s then-interim CEO, told elected leaders in that meeting the agency doesn’t think the state’s law protects voucher holders. He said all six public housing agencies in San Diego County, as well as “many, many other California housing authorities,” have been operating the same way.

But that’s not accurate.

Officials with three other public housing agencies — in Carlsbad, Encinitas and National City — say they have been checking to ensure landlords are following the state’s law, the California Tenant Protection Act, which took effect in 2020. The law sets a 10% maximum cap on rent increases within a 12-month period. Some properties are exempt, such as mobile homes, new developments and some single-family homes.

When asked by inewsource, officials with all three agencies said they review the housing characteristics each time a property owner wants to raise the rent on a tenant with a Section 8 voucher. Nonexempt properties are held to the state’s 10% maximum cap, they said.

Carlos Aguirre, director of the National City Housing Authority, said the Tenant Protection Act is a tool to keep rents reasonable. Not complying impacts the overall housing market as well as the agency’s ability to help low-income tenants pay rent.

“There’s an upward pressure on rents,” Aguirre said, adding that landlords are in the market of making a return on their investment. “So that’s a tool for us to make sure that our rents are not increasing to a point where there’s not even a market for Section 8 vouchers in National City.”

Officials with the San Diego Housing Commission, which serves 17,000 families as the region’s largest public housing agency, have viewed the law differently.

They have said they don’t have the authority to limit rent increases for tenants receiving federal assistance. Meanwhile, a pending lawsuit aims to force the agency’s compliance with state law and claw back any public money that was illegally paid to private landlords. The Housing Commission has since announced plans to cap rent hikes for voucher holders, instead billing it as a change in agency policy. But they say that change can’t take effect without approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the Section 8 program.

Alternatively, officials in Carlsbad and National City started enforcing the law without approval from HUD. Officials in Oceanside and the county have also recently taken the same steps without HUD approval. inewsource is awaiting Encinitas’ response to the same question.

“Most housing authorities across the state at this point are complying” with state law, said Madeline Howard, a senior attorney with Western Center on Law and Poverty. “So, to the extent that San Diego is saying everybody else is doing a bad job, that’s not true.”

Residential and commercial buildings in National City are shown on, Feb. 14, 2024. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

‘That affects the local market.’

Public housing agencies are responsible for managing the federal Section 8 program — one of the most significant safety nets for low-income residents anywhere in the U.S. — and are required to ensure rent increases are in line with the market and adhere to applicable laws.

But when the California Tenant Protection Act took effect in 2020, it set off a yearslong legal debate about whether those state protections extend to federal voucher holders.

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.

Aguirre, the director in National City, said he had no doubt that the Tenant Protection Act applies to Section 8 voucher holders. National City’s housing agency has taken that stance since the law took effect in 2020.

The agency even has a form letter it sends property owners to remind them of the law, informing them of notice requirements and outlining the state’s 10% cap on increases.

“It’s the law,” he said. “They have to abide by it.”

Comparing the cities

The housing authorities in Carlsbad, Encinitas and National City are much smaller, serving far fewer low-income families — about 1,700 combined, a fraction compared to the 17,000 families served in San Diego.

Some properties are exempt from state law, such as mobile homes, new developments and some single-family homes. But in late 2022, National City passed an ordinance extending the state’s cap to include mobile home parks, following complaints from residents.

The National City Housing Authority uses roughly $13 million every year in Section 8 housing vouchers to help about 1,100 low-income families pay rent. Aguirre said almost every landlord in the program asks to raise the rent every year, and six people are tasked with reviewing those requests.

And when a request comes in, Aguirre said his team checks every time whether a property is exempt to ensure compliance with state law before approving it.

“Every Section 8 housing specialist (in National City) is well aware of those exemptions, and our Section 8 manager as well,” Aguirre said, adding that following the law plays an important role in slowing the rise in rent. “If we didn’t call attention to it, then we have this upward pressure that affects the local market.”

Officials in Carlsbad say they have taken the same approach — at least since late 2021, when the agency’s current leadership took over, said Christian Gutierrez, housing services manager.

Carlsbad Village is shown on Feb. 14, 2024. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource) Credit: Zoë Meyers/inewsource

Carlsbad’s housing authority is about half the size of National City’s, serving roughly 500 low-income households with about $8 million to spend every year in federal vouchers. Two people are responsible for reviewing rent increase requests, Gutierrez said.

Any time a landlord wants to raise the rent, officials start by checking the math on any increases over the past 12 months. They also check housing characteristics to see if the property is exempt only if the proposed increase exceeds the state’s 10% cap, Gutierrez said.

Housing officials in Encinitas didn’t start checking compliance until after they received Bonta’s letter last June, according to city spokesperson Lois Yum.

The Encinitas Housing Authority gives out about $1.3 million every year in federal housing vouchers to help roughly 100 households pay rent.

Between January 2020 and November 2023, records show nearly one out of every 12 rent increases for Section 8 voucher holders living in Encinitas exceeded the state’s cap. A couple increases were as high as 35%.

But officials said they took immediate steps to ensure compliance after Bonta’s letter, Yum said. They developed a tool to check the percentage for each increase and started checking housing characteristics to see if the property was exempt.

And for all of the increases that already exceeded the state’s cap, Yum said they have since been adjusted to bring everyone in compliance.

San Diego County starts denying illegal rent increases following inewsource report.

Following an inewsource investigation, the second largest public housing agency in the region says it is, for the first time ever, checking to ensure thousands of low-income tenants have the same protections from excessive rent increases as other California renters.

The San Diego County Housing Authority is now rejecting requests by landlords to raise rent on tenants with a Section 8 housing voucher beyond the state’s 10% maximum cap. The county made the change Dec. 1 to comply with the Tenant Protection Act, a state law that took effect in 2020.

The change, according to the county, was a response to a letter California Attorney General Rob Bonta sent all 96 housing agencies in California last summer. The letter urged officials to stop approving unlawful rent increases on low-income families the federal program was intended to protect.

But the county’s change also came three weeks after an inewsource investigation revealed another agency — the San Diego Housing Commission — has been approving rent hikes for city residents without checking if they exceed the cap in state law. A pending lawsuit filed in November also asks a judge to compel the city’s housing agency to claw back all public funds illegally paid to private landlords.

Officials with the city’s Housing Commission, which serves 17,000 families as the region’s largest public housing agency, contend that the state’s law doesn’t apply to the federal program. Despite taking that stance, officials have since announced plans to cap rent hikes for voucher holders, instead billing it as a change in agency policy. But they say that change can’t take effect without approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which pays for the Section 8 program.


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.


Alternatively, the county changed its policy without approval from HUD. That’s telling, according to an advocacy group suing the city to make the same changes.

“The county took a step in the right direction, which shows the city’s claim about needing HUD approval rings hollow,” said Francine Maxwell, chair of Black Men and Women United San Diego. “There is no reason the city can’t comply with the law.”

Public housing agencies are responsible for managing the federal Section 8 program — one of the most significant safety nets for low-income residents anywhere in the U.S. — and are required to ensure rent increases are reasonable before using taxpayer money to pay for it.

But when the California Tenant Protection Act took effect in 2020, it set off a yearslong legal debate about whether those state protections extend to federal voucher holders.

Conflicting interpretations of law in state government

At the time, officials with the county’s housing authority did not change any policies to check rent increases for compliance and instead told property owners to consult with an attorney to see if the law applies to their units, a county spokesperson said. Tenants who had questions about a rent increase were told to seek help from the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, the largest poverty law firm in San Diego County.

In June, more than three years after the law took effect, Bonta issued his letter insisting that Section 8 voucher holders are protected by state law and urging officials to scrutinize rent increases before approving them for families who can least afford it.

inewsource obtained 107 rent increases the County Housing Authority approved during one week last October. Only 40 showed the original rent and the request, both of which are needed to calculate the increase, and of those, four exceeded the state’s cap.

It’s just a small sample among several thousand requests every year, a snapshot in time, and there’s no way for the public to know whether the rent increases are legal without more data and oversight. It’s possible some of the increases discovered went to properties that are exempt under the Tenant Protection Act, such as mobile homes, new developments and some single-family homes.

The county’s decision to start capping increases at levels set by state law could impact nearly 11,000 families throughout the region who rely on the federal safety net program to pay rent, saving untold millions of dollars in taxpayer money every year.

But some say the county’s move doesn’t go far enough because the agency doesn’t review housing characteristics to determine compliance — that’s data a county spokesperson said the agency doesn’t collect.

County officials instead are relying on a landlord’s word that they have read and understand state law and that their property is exempt. For all other properties, a spokesperson said staff will do the math on rent increase requests and hold those to the 10% cap.

That’s problematic, said Madeline Howard, a senior attorney with Western Center on Law and Poverty, where she works for tenants’ rights and people experiencing homelessness.

“Obviously a landlord could be free to just assert that they’re not covered when they in fact are,” Howard said.

Property owners are already violating the Tenant Protection Act, said Gil Vera, directing attorney with the Legal Aid Society of San Diego.

“It’s not always like a nefarious reason that they’re trying to get around the rent control, but it’s sometimes that they don’t know, especially for smaller landlords,” he said. “So, that is a concern, that someone would self-certify that (the law) doesn’t apply when it does.”

 

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.

Legislation exempting Chula Vista property from state Surplus Land Act passes Assembly

The state Assembly has approved legislation that would exempt 383 acres set aside by Chula Vista for a university and innovation district from the Surplus Land Act.Assembly Bill 837, sponsored by Assemblymember David Alvarez, is now under review by the Senate Rules Committee.The Surplus Land Act requires local governments to offer excess land for sale or lease to affordable housing developers first before allowing other uses. It exempts parcels that are impossible to build on or have legal restrictions.
Chula Vista sought an exemption for the site, located near its Otay Ranch Town Center, because it envisions the property having a university, market-rate housing and research and development companies. The city maintained that it acquired the land through agreements that limited the type of developments that could be built on-site.

Will Biden’s Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights Be Enough to Fix the U.S. Housing Crisis?

Thirty-five percent of the U.S. population rent their homes. In general, the renting population tends to be younger, lower income and less white than homeowners, a byproduct of redlining. Redlining is commonly referred to as any racially discriminatory housing practice but originated from the government-sponsored exclusion of Black people from homeownership and white communities. Partially due to these practices, Black (58%) and Latinx (53%) people are more likely to be renters than their white counterparts (31%), according to the 2019 census. Since Black and Latinx communities are less likely to achieve wealth through homeownership and more likely to be subject to the rising costs of rental housing and stagnant wages, the average renter in the U.S. is considered rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent. Over half of Black and Latinx renters were cost burdened prior to the pandemic compared to 42% of Asian and white households. Black renters were the most likely to be severely cost burdened, spending over 50% of their income on housing. This number rose since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when rental rates soared nearly 25% between 2019 and 2022. In no state can a person afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent on the federal minimum wage. With this bleak outlook on the housing crisis, the Biden-Harris administration, like other administrations in the past, missed the opportunity to step in in a meaningful way to ease the burden on renters by increasing the federal minimum wage.

Read More

Federal Housing Voucher Utilization Promoted in Bill by California Assembly Majority Leader Reyes – Tens of Thousands of Federal Housing Choice Vouchers Are Left Unused Each Year

Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes says, “AB 653 will prevent Californians from falling into homelessness, increase oversight and accountability, and invest in proven solutions to house Californians.”

SACRAMENTO – While affordable housing demand remains high, tens of thousands of federal housing choice vouchers are left unused each year. In order to increase use of these vouchers, Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gómez Reyes has announced legislation, AB 653, which would create the Federal Housing Voucher Acceleration Program.

The program would:

  • Pair voucher recipients with services to find and secure housing,
  • Incentivize landlords to get their units approved to accept vouchers, and
  • Require public housing authorities with the lowest voucher utilization rates to follow evidence-based practices for improvement.

“I hear from people throughout my district and the state whose eligibility for federal vouchers does nothing to house them,” said Reyes. “When someone receives a voucher to make rent affordable, but they cannot find an available unit to accept it, we see federal dollars left on the table and a household who remains housing insecure. We have to do something to make sure we are maximizing the use of federal resources. This bill provides a common sense way to ensure the state is using federal funding to pair individuals and families with places to live.”

“It has been very hard to use my housing voucher in the Inland Empire,” said Traci, an individual who has gone through the process. “It took me forever to get into a place, and the apartment was vacant for three months. I even tried other places while I was waiting, but was constantly declined.”

AB 653 is sponsored by the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Corporation for Supportive Housing, Housing California, National Housing Law Project, United Ways of California and Western Center on Law and Poverty. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 33% of families in San Bernardino have to return their unused voucher back to the local PHA and only 44.7% of LA County recipients have success finding housing with a voucher.

Western Center Roundup – March 2023

Celebrating Women’s History Month and Cesar Chavez Day


Advocating, Organizing, Speaking Up and Out: Women Are Driving the Change We Need in California

This Women’s History Month was shaped by powerful testimony women provided in press conferences, legislative hearings, strikes, and listening tours. From demanding Housing as a Human Right, advocating for Affordable Health Care, preventing homelessness through expanded tenant protections, Reimagining a CalWORKs program that truly supports families, and shining a spotlight on the unique barriers faced by farmworkers braving climate change to feed our State, women shared how policies and systems of power impact their daily lives, offering both inspiration and solutions centered in their lived experiences. We stand in awe of these change makers and thank them for their dedication to improving the lives of all Californians. We would also like to extend our congratulations to Sonya Young Aadam, WCLP partner, who received a major national nod with the Unsung Hero Award from the NAACP Image Awards for her work leading the California Black Women’s Health Project and Christine Chambers Goodman, WCLP board member and Professor of Law at Caruso School of Law at Pepperdine, who was recognized with the University’s 10th Annual Award for Excellence in Leadership.



Western Center’s Executive Director, Crystal Crawford Receives NYU School of Law Woman of Distinction Award

Our very own Crystal Crawford, Western Center Executive Director was honored by the New York School of Law with the 2022 Woman of Color Collective Woman of Distinction Award, recognizing alumnae who have made outstanding achievements in the field of law. Crystal’s acceptance speech spoke to the theme of the awards event, Building Bridges, Fostering Wellbeing. A Hays Fellow and Chairperson of Black Allied Law Students Association at NYU Law, Crystal paid homage to several of her classmates who were in attendance, as well as NYU Law professors Paulette Caldwell, Derrick Bell, Bryan Stevenson, and Leon Higginbotham for providing encouragement and inspiration throughout her career. In her closing remarks, Crystal noted that a guiding mantra for her has been the Kwanzaa principle of kujichagulia, or self-determination. “This notion of defining who we are and not letting other people define us, that’s how you foster your own wellbeing.”

Congratulations and thank you for your leadership, Crystal!



NEW REPORT: Return to Sender: How an Unreliable Mail System Harms Californians Living in Poverty

Shaped by interviews throughout the state with public benefits advocates, legal aid attorneys, food bank employees, shelter operators, and nonprofit leaders, as well as individuals struggling to access their mail, and Public Records Act responses from counties concerning their mail holding practices and methods for ensuring unhoused people can access mail, this new report outlines the challenges facing Californians without permanent addresses and/or access to reliable mail services. Special thanks to Liv Williams, who spent a year working at Western Center as a Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP Social Impact Pro Bono Fellow, for her extensive research and authorship of this report. This fellowship project has become a powerful advocacy tool to garner support for SB 491 (Durazo), co-sponsored by Western Center and the Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations. This bill would create an option for unhoused Californians to pick up government related mail from a county department of social services such as Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, election ballots, public housing waiting list notifications, student report cards, and much more. You can track this bill HERE.

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Community Centric Fundraising Hub Highlights Western Center Team’s Journey into Fundraising from a Place of Empowerment and Awareness

Western Center’s development department is as bold as they come. The team, composed of four women from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, is fertile ground to try things differently. The team, Heather Masterton, Xochi Flores, Cinthya Martinez, and April Walker recently documented their experience of reimagining development work by implementing community centric fundraising principles in a new Women’s History Month publication on the CCF hub; we invite you to learn more. “We are not just grant seekers, grant writers, foundation relationship stewards, and event planners. We are also parents, students, and professors. We are sisters and siblings in family and in community. We are connectors of all of the spaces we occupy and engage in. And just like social justice work is transformative and process based, so are the humans who use their creativity, their wordsmithing, their love of language and communication, and their acquired-by-living skillset to propel the work forward…” 

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NEW Blog Post: CalFresh Hunger Games

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit levels through Emergency Allotments to address America’s deepening hunger crisis. On March 1, 2023, those increased SNAP benefits, known as CalFresh in California, expired for approximately three million recipients, bringing food benefits down to an average of $6 per day per person. Western Center’s Outreach and Advocacy Associate, Abraham Zavala-Rodriguez connects with recipients to learn more about the impact of losing those life sustaining increases as inflation rises and the cost of food soars. Jesus and Alicia are getting by with a tight budget. They budget in the face of rising inflation where prices on milk, eggs, and bread skyrocket. For them community driven food banks have been a blessing. Alicia shared, “this is the reality for many Californians. We are doing our best to get by. Our neighbors who are also retired are in a similar situation. Others we know live in houses or apartments where multiple families are living under one roof – it is the only way to survive, but we are running out of time.”

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Inland Empire Politicians Ignoring Housing Crisis While Conjuring Warehouse Crisis

The telltale signs of income inequality, skyrocketing housing costs and chronic homelessness point to a grim reality. California is in a severe, escalating affordable housing crisis.

Again and again, leaders in Sacramento have identified the lack of available, suitable land as one of the main obstacles to affordable housing development. State and local agencies have expended millions in planning efforts to identify such available lands and prioritize them for housing.

But in the Inland Empire, decision makers seem unfazed by this reality and are enacting policies as if there were a warehouse crisis instead.

An astonishing 1 billion square feet of warehouse space has been built in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, with an additional 170 million square feet already approved or pending approval. Warehouses are increasing at a rate five times faster than population growth.

What’s most alarming is that cities and counties are approving massive logistics centers on land zoned for homes. At a time when we should be investing in affordable housing near transit and jobs, our decision makers vote to demolish neighborhoods, displacing residents and rolling out the welcome mat for industrial developers.

These untenable land-use decisions permanently eliminate prime real estate from home construction and bring in pollution that poisons the air for those who remain.

READ MORE

 

Sue Himmelrich selected to serve two year term as Mayor

Himmelrich told the Daily Press she would only accept a two year term as she believes the job requires continuity in leadership and because she needs a longer term to justify cutting back from her important work at the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

https://www.smdp.com/sue-himmelrich-selected-to-serve-two-year-term-as-mayor/199742