California landlords can’t discriminate against renters with housing vouchers, new law says

During his first stop on a statewide housing affordability tour on Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law to prohibit landlords from discriminating against tenants who use housing vouchers to pay their rent.

Current law already bans landlords from discriminating against a tenant based on his or her source of income. But landlords have to be willing to rent a unit to a family or individual using a voucher. If accepted, the tenant’s program directly pays the landlord what the voucher covers, and the renter pays the rest.

This law expands the definition of income to encompass “federal, state, or local public assistance and federal, state, or local housing subsidies.” The assistance is generally known as “Section 8” housing, though the law applies to other programs as well.

An estimated 300,000 low-income Californians rely on state and federal housing vouchers to avoid homelessness and deep poverty, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“(Vouchers) can also help low-income families — particularly African American and Hispanic families — raise their children in safer, lower-poverty communities and avoid neighborhoods of concentrated poverty,” the center noted in its 2016 research on the programs.

A coalition of housing advocates and civil rights groups backed SB 329 as a part of their effort to solve the state’s homelessness and housing affordability crisis.

During a Senate floor debate in September, state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said that landlords would still have the ability to screen these applicants using “the same criteria they use for any other potential tenant.” They would not not be required to lower rents to accommodate the tenant, and they’re not expected to forgo verification standards like credit checks and evidence of income.

“They would simply be barred from refusing someone’s application based solely on their source of income,” the Los Angeles Democrat and SB 329 author said. “The bill will enable families with housing assistance to successfully apply for and obtain, if they qualify, housing that they can afford in neighborhoods of opportunity.”

Republicans routinely argued against the measures, backed by groups that represent landlords and realtors. The California Association of Realtors opposed the bill because it said SB 329 will “mandate” landlords to accept housing vouchers.

“EVERY residential rental property owner will be effectively forced to enter into a contract with the local housing authority requiring they accept tenants who use Section 8 housing vouchers to pay a portion of their rent,” the association wrote in the bill analysis. “Instead of fixing Section 8 by remedying this and other problems to attract more landlords to voluntarily participate in the program, SB 329 creates new mandates.”

Newsom signed the legislation alongside a handful of other renter protection measures, including one to cap annual rent increases at 5 percent plus inflation and prevent landlords from evicting tenants without “just cause.” He is scheduled to continue his tour through San Diego and Los Angeles, where he is expected to sign additional housing measures.

“About a third of California renters pay more than half of their income to rent and are one emergency away from losing their housing,” Newsom said on Tuesday. “The bills signed into law today are among the strongest in the nation to protect tenants and support working families.”

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.