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News from Oakland City Attorney Barbara J. Parker

Friday, August 2, 2019

City Council adopts ordinance to increase low-income tenants’ access to housing

OAKLAND, CA — The Oakland City Council has unanimously adopted an ordinance to improve access to housing for low-income tenants.

The Equitable Access to Low-Income Housing ("EQUAL") Ordinance, co-sponsored by City Attorney Barbara J. Parker, Councilmember Dan Kalb and Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, will ensure that landlords cannot turn away or otherwise discriminate against tenants who depend on housing assistance from programs like the Housing Choice Voucher ("HCV") Program (also known as the “Section 8” program).

In short, the ordinance requires equal treatment for all tenants, regardless of whether they rely on housing assistance to be able to pay rent.

“In this historic housing crisis, many families cannot afford rental housing in Oakland without assistance,” City Attorney Parker said. “This law will help to close a major loophole that has exacerbated the housing crisis and housing injustice for many Oaklanders.”

As demand for rental housing in the Bay Area has soared, incomes have stagnated, resulting in skyrocketing competition for the inadequate supply of affordable housing. Many landlords openly reject tenants who rely upon programs like Section 8, refusing to rent to anyone who receives government assistance; other landlords use underhanded and illegal tactics to force out Section 8 tenants.

Over the past year, the City of Oakland has received numerous reports of landlords openly refusing to rent to HCV holders. Many of these landlords include phrases like “NO Section 8” in online advertisements for their units; others wait until families submit an application or schedule an appointment to view the unit to communicate that they will not accept HCVs as a method of payment.

“It is unconscionable that some people might discriminate against prospective tenants who have Section 8 vouchers as one of their sources of rental payment,” Councilmember Kalb said. “With this law, we are seeking to end that discrimination and provide better access to housing for our very low income residents.”

In February 2018, city staff conducted a Craigslist search for one-bedroom units renting for $2,000 per month or less in downtown Oakland – 28 of the first 100 unique advertisements indicated that recipients of housing assistance would not be considered. Blanket policies of this nature are illegal and demoralize families who rely on housing assistance to pay rent and perpetuate the very disparities in access to safe and affordable housing that the HCV Program was designed to remedy.

The EQUAL ordinance prohibits landlords from taking actions based on a tenant’s participation in a housing assistance program including (but not limited to):

  • Refusing to rent a unit, requiring different rental terms or misrepresenting the availability of a unit.
  • Advertising or communicating that no Section 8 tenants may apply.
  • Refusing or restricting facilities, services, repairs or improvements (some landlords have gone so low as to refuse repairs in order to make units uninhabitable, and therefore no longer eligible for Section 8 assistance).
  • Terminating a tenancy.
  • Using a financial standard that privileges income or payments made directly by prospective tenants or prejudices reliance on housing assistance.

The law empowers the City Attorney’s Office, the aggrieved tenant or a tenants’ rights nonprofit organization to sue landlords for violations. The court may issue an injunction and may require that the landlord pay litigation costs and attorney’s fees, plus significant damages. The ordinance also authorizes infractions against any owner for the first violation, and misdemeanor criminal charges against owners who violate the law multiple times.

The ordinance initiated and created by the City Attorney’s Office took effect on July 16 upon the City Council’s unanimous vote.

“This extreme housing crisis is affecting all Oaklanders, especially those who are low-income and may be subject to discrimination and become homeless,” Councilmember Bas said. “I’m proud that our city is stepping up to protect our most vulnerable Oakland residents.”

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