Why many Stanislaus County landlords reject Section 8 vouchers — and what can be done

Section 8 client talks housing challenges

Lori Greenhalgh of Modesto is pictured in her Section 8 apartment on E Fairmont avenue in Modesto, Calif. on August 28, 2019. Section 8 clients in Modesto face long waiting lists for housing and property owners who don't want to rent to them.
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Lori Greenhalgh of Modesto is pictured in her Section 8 apartment on E Fairmont avenue in Modesto, Calif. on August 28, 2019. Section 8 clients in Modesto face long waiting lists for housing and property owners who don't want to rent to them.

The notice gave Modesto resident Lori Greenhalgh exactly 90 days to find another place to live.

The property manager explained to Greenhalgh that the apartment building off McHenry Avenue was due for renovations.

Greenhalgh, 52, said she believes she was pushed out because she’s in the Section 8 program. A couple in the same building, who rely on the government rental assistance program, also received notice to be out by Sept. 5.

The manager “told me she did not want to do Section 8 paperwork and did not want to contract with the program,” said Greenhalgh, who lived in the Modesto apartment for 11 years after being disabled by Cushing’s disease. She feared that fighting the recent notice could leave a mark on her rental history, making it even tougher for her to secure rental housing in the future.

Stephanie Garcia, who runs the property management firm, countered that Greenhalgh could have applied for another Section 8 apartment at a different location. The couple was approved for another Section 8 apartment elsewhere but they opted not to take it, Garcia said.

“I have Section 8 housing (managed by the business),” Garcia said. “We don’t have a lot because the owners get discouraged with the inspections and some don’t know how to do it.”

People in the Housing Choice Voucher Program, commonly known as “Section 8,” are eligible for subsidies to help them pay for rental housing, which is increasingly expensive in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and throughout California. Many Section 8 voucher holders say they are coldly turned away by property owners who don’t participate in the Department of Housing and Urban Development program.

“When we find a home that would be perfect, once we say Section 8, it poisons the conversation,” said one Modesto resident and a mother of three. “The other day, I called a property management firm and explained my situation. The woman responded that ‘landlords are running away from people with Section 8.’ ”

One landlord, she said, ushered her and her husband out the door and promised to email the application, but never took down her email address.

At any given time, from 4,660 to 4,800 Section 8 vouchers are available in Stanislaus County for low-income families, disabled adults, seniors on fixed income and veterans. If they can find housing, the voucher holders often pay rent equal to 30 percent of their adjusted income; the HUD program covers the rest.

From February to July this year, 21 percent of the Section 8 vouchers expired in Stanislaus County, meaning the holders could not find a rental, according to the county Housing Authority, which administers the HUD program.

More than 60 percent took more than two months to secure a dwelling and only 16 percent found a rental in less than two months.

“That is a huge problem,” Housing Authority Executive Director Barbara Kauss said. “The big issue is the current lack of affordable housing in the county. We need more units. It is that simple.”

Kauss and fair housing advocates are hoping that property owners get over the stigma attached to the program and rent to more voucher holders.

Kauss acknowledged that some property owners have had a bad experience with a Section 8 tenant, but most have also had trouble with market-rate renters. She stressed that screening and good management practices should ensure they rent to good tenants.

Participation in the Housing Choice program is voluntary for property owners, who can legally put “no Section 8” on advertisements for rentals.

By law, property owners in California cannot discriminate against prospective tenants based on their source of income, whether it’s Social Security or a pension. But it’s unclear if Section 8 rental assistance counts as income. Political leaders have debated whether Section 8 voucher holders should be protected against discriminatory practices.

The California Legislature is still considering Senate Bill 329, which would prohibit landlords from denying people simply because they have Section 8 vouchers. Some cities like San Jose have protections for Section 8 participants.

“Here in Modesto, Section 8 is not protected,” said Elizabeth Sanchez, fair housing coordinator for Project Sentinel in Modesto. “When a tenant comes to me and I’m told they have been discriminated against due to Section 8, I can’t do anything.”

Sanchez said Modesto could explore protections for Section 8 voucher holders, so more of those prospective tenants can find housing.

Greg Terzakis, senior vice president for the California Apartment Association, said there are burdens and hurdles for smaller landlords, or mom and pop owners, if they accept Section 8 vouchers.

He said it takes longer to receive payments initially from the Housing Authority. After entering a contract with the agency, Terzakis said, weeks or a month may pass before the Housing Authority conducts a required inspection.

“A mom and pop can’t wait two or three months between one tenant moving out and the next tenant moving in,” Terzakis said.

He recognized that the benefits for property owners are primarily the reliable monthly payments once the tenants are settled.

“There needs to be a conversation with local, state and federal elected officials to figure out a way to make the process more streamlined,” Terzakis said.

According to tenant advocates, discrimination against Section 8 voucher holders has deeper effects by concentrating poverty in specific neighborhoods and promoting racial segregation in the city. Voucher holders may eventually find housing in Modesto’s airport area, in other rundown neighborhoods or in affordable housing centers.

Sanchez said she would like to see meetings with property owners for learning more about renting to Section 8 tenants and discussing landlords’ concerns.

Kauss said the county Housing Authority and partners have been working to make more affordable housing available. Construction has begun on Oak Leaf Meadows, a 56-unit complex in Oakdale. When the center opens within 18 months, it will rent to low-income tenants, veterans with housing vouchers and families pursuing the goal of home ownership, among others.

One Section 8 program places money in an escrow account for tenants to help cover the upfront costs of a home purchase after five years.

In Turlock, the Avena Bella complex will expand with another 60 apartments for low-income residents. The additional units are projected to open in fall 2020.

Because of her disability, Greenhalgh could have sought an extension or a reasonable accommodation from the owner of the apartment building where she has lived. She soon gave up, however, on searching for a new place that accepts Section 8 in Stanislaus County, but easily found a one-bedroom apartment in Phoenix, where her daughter lives.

The Phoenix apartment in a 15-year-old complex has stainless steel appliances, a washer and dryer, and access to a pool and jacuzzi. She said the couple and child who were her neighbors in Modesto are moving to the eastern United States, where they have family.

“Taking a Section 8 voucher from California to Arizona has been tricky but nothing that’s horrible,” Greenhalgh said. “The place I am moving to in Phoenix is fantastic.”

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