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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.

JOINT PRESS RELEASE: Attorneys for Community Groups Denounce California’s Move to Appeal Ruling in Covid-19 Rent Relief Lawsuit

For Immediate Release: March 2, 2023

Media Contact: Joshua Busch, 310-991-2503, [email protected]

 

Attorneys for Community Groups Denounce California’s Move to Appeal Ruling in Covid-19 Rent Relief Lawsuit

In January, a Superior Court judge ordered the state to develop denial notices that satisfy constitutional due process protections for applicants

OAKLAND, CA – March 2, 2023 – Attorneys representing three community groups suing the State of California for wrongfully denying applicants without adequate process in its Covid-19 rent relief program released a statement today denouncing the State’s decision to appeal a recent ruling in the case. In January, a Superior Court judge said that in rejecting an application for rent relief, the state must “specify the facts supporting the denial” in order to satisfy the applicant’s right to due process–meaning the denial notice must provide enough information for applicants to understand why the state rejected their application, and potentially appeal the decision. The state has been barred from issuing denial notices to the approximately 140,0000 remaining applicants until this requirement is met.

The state’s lawyer argued that this requirement would be too burdensome, and that in order to provide such information to applicants, the state would have to pay all remaining rent relief funds to the private contractor it hired to administer the program. Alameda Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch rejected the state’s argument and its implications that “a constitutional principle can be ignored because of budgetary reasons.” Last Friday, the state turned again to the Court of Appeal, requesting it throw out the lower court’s order.

In response, the legal team representing the community groups that filed the suit has issued the following statement:

“Our clients are simply asking the State of California disburse rental assistance funds to eligible tenants so that they can avoid eviction, and for those that are found ineligible for assistance, provide a notice that explains why the tenant is being denied so they have a fair chance to appeal. Both the trial court and the Court of Appeal have agreed that tenants need to be told the specific reason they are being denied assistance.Yet, rather than provide applicants with the basic information both courts have said is required—information we know the program keeps track of—the state continues to dispute its obligation to the public, and has filed yet another writ in the Court of Appeal to end the injunction and continue issuing unacceptably opaque denials.

At the same time the state refuses to inform tenants who are still waiting for help nearly a year after the program closed why their applications are not being approved. We are disappointed by the state’s decision to put its resources towards litigation instead of distributing funds to eligible tenants and landlords. The state’s refusal to provide transparency is preventing much-needed relief from getting into the hands of tens of thousands of Californians . Many of these tenants have started to get eviction notices for nonpayment of rent, and the state’s inaction will harm Californians who need help now. If the state moves forward with denying the 140,000 remaining applications as it proposes, the program’s total denial rate could be nearly 50%, a shameful track record for the state with the highest need in the country. This denial rate does not include tens of thousands of additional applicants for whom the state only approved part of the rental assistance requested without explanation, leaving tenants vulnerable to eviction for the balance.

We are concerned that the state erroneously continues to label the program as ‘in limbo.’ The only part of the program impacted by this lawsuit is the state’s ability to issue denial notices. Nothing is stopping the state from reaching out to applicants to help them fix mistakes on their applications, ask for missing information, or even disperse funds to approved applicants. Frustratingly, we hear from dozens of applicants every week who have been waiting patiently for a year or more with no follow-up, information, or assistance from the state.

Rather than fix the numerous widespread issues with the program, the state continues to drag this case out and delay rental payments by refusing to amend their flawed notice, repeatedly running to the Court of Appeal, and engaging in legal delay tactics. They are now alarmingly turning around and blaming our clients —tenant rights organizations who have assisted thousands of tenants navigate the difficult application process—for the lack of payments to suffering Californians. But our clients have only ever had one goal in bringing this case: to make sure that our most vulnerable residents get the rent relief promised and avoid eviction. We hope the state begins to act with the same goals in mind.”

The state was sued last June by community groups Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE Action), Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), and PolicyLink for issuing flawed notices that provided little or no explanation for why an applicant was denied, making it difficult for wrongfully denied tenants to appeal. The groups are represented by Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), Public Counsel, Western Center on Law & Poverty, and Covington & Burling LLP.

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Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) is a nonprofit law firm that seeks to achieve equal justice for people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change, and community empowerment. It has five offices in Los Angeles County, along with four Self-Help Legal Access Centers at area courthouses, and three domestic violence clinics to aid survivors.

Public Counsel is the nation’s largest provider of pro bono legal services, utilizing an innovative legal model to promote justice, hope, and opportunity in lower-income and communities of color in Los Angeles and across the nation. Through groundbreaking civil rights litigation, community building, advocacy, and policy change, as well as wide-ranging direct legal services that annually help thousands of people experiencing poverty, Public Counsel has fought to secure equal access to justice for more than 50 years.

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care, and a strong safety net for Californians with low incomes, through the lens of economic and racial justice.

Court orders California to pause denying pandemic rent aid

“We have to keep people housed,” said Madeline Howard, senior attorney at Western Center on Law and Poverty, in a statement. “That’s why we filed this lawsuit — the program was created to prevent evictions but falls woefully short.”

https://www.pe.com/2022/07/13/court-orders-california-to-pause-denying-pandemic-rent-aid/

California can’t deny pending applications for rent relief while its denials are under review, judge says

“That hearing will probably take place in September, said attorney Lorraine Lopez of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, one of the organizations representing the renters. During the interim, Lopez and her colleagues said, nearly 100,000 households will be entitled to rental benefits without interference by the department.”

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PRESS RELEASE: Judge Orders CA Dept of Housing & Community Development to Stop Denying State Rental Assistance Applications Until Further Review

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The court agreed that HCD denied applications without meaningful explanation or a transparent appeals process

Oakland, CA – An Alameda County court has sided with tenant advocates and ordered California’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) not to deny any pending rental assistance applications until the court can determine if HCD’s process meets constitutional due process standards. The court concluded that HCD may be violating the constitutional rights of tenants who applied to the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) by failing to provide an adequate process for tenants to challenge denials.

“Over the past few months, I’ve worked with hundreds of tenants who received a denial with little to no explanation and are terrified about losing their homes. I’m just so relieved to see the judge take action to address this problem, and to give families a fighting chance to receive the rent relief they are due,” said Patricia Mendoza, Organizer at Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE).

The court also paused the 30-day deadline for tenants to appeal denials, meaning denials issued will not become final. It’s estimated the decision could impact nearly 100,000 tenant households across the state, including those who still have applications pending and those who had their appeals denied. The court’s order does not prevent HCD from approving pending rental assistance applications, including those on appeal.

“At SAJE, we have helped over 300 tenants through our Emergency Rental Assistance Program Clinics; many have still not heard back, or were denied for ‘lack of response,’” said Mateo Gil, Community Organizer at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE). “There was even a case where a tenant in need was denied for a lack of lease when they had a verbal rental agreement. SAJE and the Keep LA Housed Coalition are working hard to ensure our communities, many undocumented, get their applications processed. Thousands of households are still at risk of eviction, and many of those are possibly going to fall into homelessness without stronger permanent protections now and after the pandemic.”

Last month, ACCE and SAJE, along with research and action institute PolicyLink, filed a lawsuit against HCD for administering ERAP in an opaque and discriminatory way and for refusing to provide adequate explanation to tenants who were denied assistance. Yesterday, a judge agreed that the denial notices HCD sent out are too vague, that applicants have no meaningful way to appeal, and that HCD indefensibly refused to tell applicants which of their documents led to denial. The tenant organizations are represented by Western Center on Law & Poverty, Public Counsel, and Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

“Too often, tenants have been wrongfully denied rental assistance that they are eligible for. It is crucial to prevent further denials and existing denials from becoming final until HCD gives tenants the information that they need to challenge a wrongful denial,” said Nisha Kashyap, Supervising Staff Attorney for Consumer Rights and Economic Justice at Public Counsel.

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program was created to keep vulnerable tenants housed amid the ongoing economic fallout from the pandemic, but it has been the target of multiple lawsuits challenging how the program was designed and implemented. Advocates point to the latest comprehensive numbers released from the state, which show that as of June 23 2022, 157,881, or 33 percent, of the reviewed applications were denied, putting tens of thousands of people at risk of eviction now that the state’s eviction protections have expired. California received $5.2 billion in federal funds and HCD was charged with creating an application process, screening tenants for eligibility, and distributing the funds.

“We have to keep people housed,” said Madeline Howard, Senior Attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty. “That’s why we filed this lawsuit — the program was created to prevent evictions but falls woefully short. We are very pleased that the judge ordered HCD to stop denying tenants with this unfair system.”

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Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) is a nonprofit law firm that seeks to achieve equal justice for people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change, and community empowerment. It has five offices in Los Angeles County, along with four Self-Help Legal Access Centers at area courthouses, and three domestic violence clinics to aid survivors.

Public Counsel is a nonprofit law firm and the nation’s largest provider of pro bono legal services. It serves communities locally and nationwide by advancing civil rights litigation, advocating for policy change and providing free legal services to thousands of clients annually.

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care, and a strong safety net for Californians with low incomes, through the lens of economic and racial justice.

Tens of thousands of Californians in limbo as eviction protections end

“Tenants are facing eviction even as their landlords are given these giant checks and tenants who are eligible for assistance are being denied with these cryptic notices that don’t tell them why. It just doesn’t make sense,” said Madeline Howard, a senior staff attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty, one of the groups suing the state over the program.”

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