Menlo Park bans landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants | July 11, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

Almanac

News - July 11, 2018

Menlo Park bans landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants

by Kate Bradshaw

People who favor tenant rights recently won a small victory in Menlo Park when the City Council on June 19 unanimously and without discussion approved a policy that prohibits landlords of properties with three or more housing units from discriminating against renters based on their source of income, including whether they receive rent subsidies.

According to Clay Curtin, interim housing and economic development manager, the matter was largely a housekeeping item intended to modernize the city's housing laws to align with other cities.

"It just clarifies things so that our ordinance is updated and aligned with what other cities have done," Curtin said.

According to staff reports, people most likely to be affected by this policy are those who hold rental assistance vouchers and are looking for housing in Menlo Park.

The designated rental assistance program in San Mateo County is called "Moving to Work," which operates as a five-year "self-sufficiency" program, said Inga Godin, housing program specialist with the county Housing Authority. Under the program, a tenant with a voucher pays 30 percent of his or her income to the landlord, and the Housing Authority subsidizes the rest of the rent.

According to Menlo Park city staff, there are about 4,300 low-income families in the county who have Section 8 vouchers, or federally funded subsidies to cover the cost of qualifying households' rent beyond the first 30 percent.

The county's waitlist is thousands deep, so the housing authority selects participants for the program by lottery, according to Godin.

People winning vouchers must then find a landlord willing to participate in the program, and have180 days to do so. While that period sounds like a lot given the conditions, Godin said, voucher holders are "quite often" unable to find willing landlords.

In a region teeming with six-figure-earning prospective tenants champing at the bit for a place to live, it has been a major challenge to find landlords willing to house lower-income people, she said. For the past three years or so, the county housing authority has even offered financial incentives — such as $1,000 bonuses to new participating landlords — to sweeten the deal for landlords.

Even so, she said, "Roughly half (of the voucher holders) are not going to find anything. It is pretty sad."

Landlords who participate in the voucher program retain their rights based on whatever city they're in, she added. Which means, in most places in the county, they can evict a tenant at any time with 90 days' notice and increase rent as much or as often as they want, she said.

While Menlo Park's ordinance will not expressly force qualifying landlords to participate in the voucher program, it could lay the groundwork for a voucher holder to bring a legal case forward if he or she feels discriminated against because he or she is a voucher holder.

In other words, the policy could enable legal services organizations to sue a landlord on behalf of a tenant, Housing Commissioner Karen Grove pointed out in May when the Housing Commission deliberated on the matter. The commission recommended the council approve it on a 6-0-1 vote on May 9.

A violation of the ordinance would be considered a misdemeanor, punishable with fines up to $1,000 or six months in county jail.

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