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Landlords to Appeal in Santa Monica Legal Fight Over Section 8 Vouchers  

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Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

February 6, 2017 -- Landlords are vowing to appeal a court ruling last week that upheld a Santa Monica law banning income discrimination against the holders of Section 8 vouchers, the federal subsidies used to help low-income tenants find housing in privately owned apartment buildings.

The January 30 ruling in Los Angeles County Superior Court stemmed from a 2015 lawsuit by the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA) that alleges the City's anti-discrimination law is invalid.

Santa Monica's ordinance -- which was spurred by rising complaints from voucher holders that landlords were rejecting them -- added income source to a list of traditional housing discrimination protections such as age, race and gender.

AAGLA claims the ordinance conflicts with California's Government Code, which defines a “source of income” as income paid “directly to a tenant or a representative of the tenant” and which overrides local law ("Apartment Owners Sue Santa Monica Over New Housing Discrimination Law," June 15, 2015).

Craig Mordoh, the attorney representing the landlord association, said his clients will file an appeal as soon as the judgment is formally issued, which he said typically requires a few weeks.

“There is no question we will appeal,” he said. “In Santa Monica, it seems like (with landlords), whenever Constitutional rights are involved, it doesn’t matter.”

By changing the definition of income source to include federal housing assistance -- and backing it with fines that could go as high as $10,000 for serious discrimination cases -- Santa Monica’s ordinance forces landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers or face possible legal actions from the City, the lawsuit alleges.

The City Attorney's Office announced the court decision last Monday, characterizing the ruling as having far-reaching implications for cities that either have similar ordinances or are considering adopting them.

Marin County, the cities of San Francisco, Corte Madera, East Palo Alto and Woodland have laws banning discrimination against holders of Section 8 vouchers. Local landlords are also suing the City of San Francisco to invalidate its law.

Gary Rhoades, deputy city attorney for Santa Monica, called the court ruling by Superior Court Judge Lisa H. Cole a “major victory” for tenants.

“This ordinance is especially important to protect low-income tenants in Santa Monica, given the high cost of housing and the difficulty many low-income tenants and voucher holders have in finding affordable apartments,” he said

Rhoades said the City Attorney's Office will act quickly on the ruling.

“Now that the court has validated this much-needed affordable housing measure, our office plans to immediately schedule meetings with those owners who have hesitated to accept Section 8 vouchers and may already be in violation of the law.”

Section 8 vouchers are a major component of the federal government’s effort to help low-income earners find affordable housing. The program offers federal funding for those who earn less than half the median income of their county median.

But funding falls far short of demand. In Santa Monica, slightly fewer than 2,000 people hold the vouchers; the waiting list is about 33,000, although the City gives priority to those who already live in Santa Monica and are in danger of being displaced or left homeless.

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and Western Center on Law and Poverty intervened in the case on behalf of two voucher holders.

Sonjia Sheffield, a longtime Santa Monica resident, told City officials she tried to find a larger apartment within the city, but was told by some 50 landlords that they did not accept vouchers.

Stephanie Keys, a mother of three, searched for an apartment in Santa Monica unsuccessfully for about two years. She said several landlords told her that they do not accept Section 8 vouchers. Western Center additionally represented a tenants’ rights organization, Tenants Together.

The ruling gave such tenants “a glimmer of hope,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director of Tenants Together, a renters group represented by Western Center in the case.

There are 1,097 tenants in the City of Santa Monica who use Section 8 vouchers to pay for their apartments, according to the City.

Nationwide, 2,015,000 Section 8 vouchers were issued in 2016, according to the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Department. Half of them went to low-income families with children, 17 percent to low-income senior citizens and 19 percent to poor persons with disabilities.

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