Novato rejects anti-bias rules for low-income renters
Author: Matthew Pera
Publication: Marin Independent Journal
Prospective tenants in Novato who are turned away by landlords solely because they have Section 8 vouchers won’t have legal protection from the city — at least not yet.
Guidelines that county officials hope will be adopted by each of Marin’s cities and towns were struck down by the Novato City Council on Tuesday, citing concerns that the scope of those regulations may have been too broad.
“I’m not denying that Section 8 holders shouldn’t be discriminated against, because they shouldn’t be,” said Councilwoman Pam Drew. “But passing a very, very broad ordinance that we really don’t understand ... doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.”
Marin’s Board of Supervisors approved the fair housing ordinance — which forbids landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants with Section 8 or other rental assistance vouchers — in November 2016. Supervisors at the time said they hoped other local municipalities would follow suit adopting similar regulations, in part so that any confusion for renters or landlords could be avoided about where, exactly, the rules apply, according to Leelee Thomas, planning manager for the county’s Community Development Agency.
Fairfax recently adopted its own fair housing rules, and officials in San Rafael said the City Council plans to soon host a study session to discuss renter protections — including protections against income-based discrimination.
The county’s fair housing ordinance doesn’t require that landlords rent to Section 8 tenants. Instead, it ensures that any prospective tenants are evaluated on an equal playing field, according to Thomas.
“All it’s asking is that landlords use the same criteria to evaluate prospective tenants with Section 8 vouchers as everyone else,” she said.
Novato considered an ordinance nearly identical to the county’s Tuesday, and Drew said she was concerned the regulations didn’t state clearly enough that they applied only to rental housing. Jeffrey Walter, Novato’s attorney, agreed that the language used in the proposed regulations may have been too broad.
“It does speak to transactions other than the rental of property,” Walter said. “It’s broader than that. To what it might apply beyond that, I do not have current knowledge ... but its language is much broader than rental property.”
Walter clarified that a different attorney in his office had looked over the regulations before the City Council met to discuss them.
Thomas said she spoke with the county’s legal office after hearing Novato’s concerns and was advised that, from the county’s perspective, the ordinance makes clear that the regulations apply only to rental property.
LONG WAITING LIST
The Marin Housing Authority — the agency tasked with distributing federally funded rental assistance vouchers to county residents — has about 2,100 vouchers that can be used at any given time, according to D’Jon Scott-Miller, the agency’s Section 8 program manager.
There are about 1,000 people on the waiting list hoping to receive a voucher. The waiting list, according to Thomas, hasn’t accepted new names since 2008. The housing authority still hasn’t offered vouchers to everyone who put their names in the pool more than a decade ago, he said.
But even some who have been issued vouchers have never had the chance to secure housing with their much-awaited assistance, according to Scott-Miller.
Last year, the housing authority issued vouchers to 717 people, but only 435 of them were able to secure a lease with their rental assistance.
According to Scott-Miller, the lack of success for many is due to the negative stigma some landlords have toward low-income tenants, coupled with the lack of affordable housing in the county.
In Novato on Tuesday, some said it was time to do something about the issue.
“This is about fair housing, and about giving people an opportunity,” said Councilwoman Denise Athas. “I think Novato should be a leader in this.”
Athas and Councilman Eric Lucan both voted in favor of the proposed fair housing ordinance.
Lucan said a quick search for available Novato rentals he conducted on Craigslist Tuesday yielded about six posts which specified prospective tenants with Section 8 vouchers wouldn’t be accepted.
“This is something that is very critical for our community,” Lucan said. “When you look at the housing crisis we’re facing, we have a responsibility to put this out there.”
Lucan noted the county in recent years has ramped up a program that provides landlords with incentives for renting to Section 8 tenants. The Board of Supervisors in 2016 allocated $400,000 to a loss mitigation fund, which was set to compensate landlords whose properties are damaged by low-income tenants.
Councilwoman Pat Eklund suggested holding a workshop to flesh out the details of the ordinance and inform community members about its ramifications, but her proposal was rejected by Athas and Lucan, who said a workshop would only slow the process.
Novato council members didn’t make a formal plan Tuesday to revisit the ordinance, but Novato’s city manager could bring the issue back at a future meeting.
Some community members told the council they were excited about the proposed regulations.
Lisel Blash, a Fairfax resident, said Marin’s jurisdictions should do what they can to ensure Section 8 vouchers aren’t going to waste.
“Housing vouchers represent a chance for low-wage individuals and families to move to or stay in areas with greater economic and educational opportunities while paying only a third of their income toward housing,” she said. “People wait many years to get these vouchers, yet every year ... people can’t use those vouchers because they are turned down by landlords. This is a loss of affordable housing in Marin.”
But others said the law could make things more complicated for landlords and organizations trying to do the right thing.
Lloyd Pittman, a board member with Nova-Ro, a nonprofit based out of Novato that provides housing to low-income seniors, told the council he was afraid the fair housing ordinance could get in the way of a requirement his organization places on its clients that ensures operations run smoothly.
Prospective tenants who apply to live in Nova-Ro’s units have to prove family members or other caretakers live within reasonable distances to the organization’s housing complexes, and can be available to help out during personal emergencies. According to Pittman, Nova-Ro fears the regulations that forbid discrimination against Section 8 tenants could hamper the organization’s ability to require what he calls “sponsors.”
“We want to make sure there are people we can call for our clients,” he said. “If someone needs medicine, or needs to go the doctor, a family member can come out and help them. But if we have to accept Section 8 tenants, well, Section 8 won’t come out and help.”
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