Before moving into her new unit, Doris Mitchell tried unsuccessfully for weeks to find a landlord who’d take her Section 8 voucher. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Doris Mitchell felt “sheer relief” in January when she learned she’d qualified for a Section 8 housing voucher in Berkeley.

The few years she had spent homeless in the city, living in her car and in shelters, had taken their toll. The sleepless nights didn’t help her deal with the PTSD she experienced from fleeing a violent husband. Nor did the hours spent wandering the city when the women’s drop-in center and library closed for the weekend or on holidays.

Mitchell was yearning for a safe place of her own, where she didn’t need to wear earphones to listen to the jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and reggae she finds therapeutic. So as soon as she received the voucher, she “pounded the pavement” looking for an apartment, she said.

Under the federal Section 8 program, eligible low-income tenants pay 30-40% of their monthly income toward rent, and the local housing authority covers the rest with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, up to a federally designated amount. In Berkeley there are 1,526 households currently paying rent this way, according to the Berkeley Housing Authority.

But when Mitchell set out to search for her own spot, she felt she wasn’t taken seriously.

Mitchell has kept the little spiral notebook where she jotted down addresses of all the places she checked out after getting the voucher, from a unit on Berkeley Way to another by frat row. She said some landlords looked at her blankly when she brought up Section 8, one asking her to prove that, even without the voucher, she made enough money on her own to cover the rent. One woman seemed ready to offer Mitchell a spot, then never followed up with her after she mentioned the voucher. Another property owner went with a competing tenant who was paying out of pocket, and still another, Mitchell said, told her he had too many Section 8 tenants already.

Whether he knew it or not, that last landlord’s response was illegal.

Since 2017, Berkeley has required property owners to give the same consideration to all prospective tenants regardless of their “source of income,” be it an employer or the government.

“This really is a fundamental fair-housing issue,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín in a phone interview. “We had heard of cases of Section 8 tenants and Shelter Plus Care voucher-holders who were being denied the ability to search for housing. [The 2017 ordinance] is about removing a barrier so people can be considered.”

It is still common to see Berkeley landlords advertising that they won’t consider Section 8 tenants, even though such messages became illegal in 2017. Screenshot: Craigslist

These source-of-income laws are often mentioned in the same breath as the “Ban The Box” campaign, which pushes to remove questions about prospective employees’ criminal records from job applications.

California law actually already prohibits tenant discrimination based on source of income, but the state’s definition of income does not include vouchers. The legislature is currently considering making state law what cities like Berkeley, San Francisco, Los Angeles and — as of last month — Oakland have already done within their own borders.

Anyone who’s trawled through Craigslist lately might be surprised to learn that Berkeley is included in that group. Many apartment listings blatantly violate the city law, declaring that voucher-holders won’t even be considered.

This month, an ad for a “great & spacious 2 bedroom” on Dwight Way warned “No Section 8.” So did an “interesting small house” listed in the Berkeley Hills. “No Section 8 Accepted (don’t ask),” wrote the owner or manager of another two-bedroom unit on Ashby Avenue. Within one week in mid-July there were at least 15 Berkeley units advertised on the website with similar messages.

Berkeley’s source-of-income ordinance has been on the books for two years now, and it had been under discussion for even longer. The City Council item was initially proposed by Kriss Worthington — who has since retired from public service. So why are those ads still prevalent today? And can anything be done about it?

Would the city sue a landlord?

“The primary tool that’s given here is a right for tenants or prospective tenants to sue landlords if they believe discrimination is happening,” said city spokesman Matthai Chakko. “Landlords have more liability as a result.”

Under the 2017 ordinance, tenants who take their landlords to court within one year of a violation stand to win three times the monthly rent of the unit in question plus other damages.

The city pays the East Bay Community Law Center and the Anti-Eviction Defense Center to provide eviction defense and housing counseling to Berkeley tenants. In the latest city budget, the City Council greatly expanded the scope of that work, allocating $900,000 total to those organizations for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. The Rent Board administers that funding.

Housing attorneys at EBCLC, however, told Berkeleyside they don’t file many affirmative lawsuits.

“One of the challenges we have faced with this policy is enforcement,” acknowledged Arreguín. “The city attorney’s office is very short-staffed and just doesn’t currently have the capacity to bring proactive cases against landlords.” In Oakland’s new ordinance, conversely, that council gave its city attorney the ability to file lawsuits against property owners.

The 2017 Berkeley City Council passed the ordinance prohibiting discrimination of tenants based on source of income. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

If there were one “pretty egregious case” of, for example, a large property management company violating the law multiple times, the mayor said he would be interested in considering a lawsuit to raise awareness of the consequences for all landlords.

“It’s definitely an issue we’ll be working on,” Arreguín said. “I think it was great we adopted the ordinance. Now we need to make sure it’s working effectively. That will involve outreach, and it will involve enforcement, so everyone’s clear about what their rights and responsibilities are.”

There are likely many small landlords who own one or two properties in Berkeley who don’t attend City Council meetings and don’t even know about the law.

Krista Gulbransen, the executive director of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, said her organization has made sure its members are well aware of the rules. But many landlords aren’t connected to groups like hers. Chakko noted that the council did not allocate funding for outreach and education when it passed the law.

Some property owners who violate the law are not ignorant of it, however.

“We need to remove that,” said Esteban Tenjo, property manager with JD Management Group, when asked about a recent South Berkeley Craigslist post that said “No Section 8 at this time.” Tenjo said the company knows about the ordinance but has been using the same text in its ads for years without getting around to updating it. Another multiple-property group, SMC East Bay, also posted a Berkeley ad with “No Section 8” messages the same week.

Tenjo said JD Management handles many units in Berkeley, some of which do house voucher-holders, but it’s not the group’s preference.

With Section 8, “there’s just more work for our property owners, more inspections,” he said. “And the people who apply don’t qualify. Our qualifications are having good financial stability, good credit.” (Others argue that Section 8 tenants are the most financially stable, as landlords can rely on the housing authority to pay rent on time.)

Do source-of-income laws work?

Tenjo’s stance raises questions about the effectiveness of the Berkeley law even if it were enforced. The city can make landlords consider section 8 applicants and allow them to apply for units, but at the end of the day, “we can’t prevent an owner from deciding to rent to somebody else,” Arreguín said.

The Section 8 rent prices are capped by HUD, which determines standard ranges for each region. Berkeley chooses to use the high end of that range to compete in the market, but even so, that means $1,876 one-bedrooms, $2,338 two-bedrooms and $3,217 three-bedrooms. Median rents in Berkeley are higher than that. Most property owners are likely easily swayed to make sometimes hundreds more each month renting at market rate — and to forgo the required inspections and bureaucracy that comes with any Section 8 contract.

Even if a property owner meets with a voucher-holder or reads their application, there are plenty of perfectly legal ways to go about disqualifying them from tenancy, intentionally or otherwise.

Like Tenjo, many of Gulbransen’s members require good credit scores, often 700 or higher, she said.

“People often in need of Section 8 housing are from marginalized communities, and there are ecosystems around them that often keep them from having good credit scores,” Gulbransen said. Because voucher-holders often don’t meet property owners’ other requirements, the system almost “sets tenants up for failure,” she said.

The Berkeley Housing Authority, at 1936 University Ave.. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Gulbransen actually has Section 8 tenants herself, but in Concord, for example, where Berkeley’s rent control and good-cause-for-eviction rules don’t come into play. Cities have some flexibility with implementation, like choosing whether to allow landlords to stop participating in the Section 8 program while a tenant is still in the unit. In Berkeley, property owners can’t opt out while someone’s still living there.

“Our problem is not ever with the tenant,” Gulbransen said. “There are a lot of good Section 8 tenants. The majority are either disabled or seniors, and working full time.”

They’re not necessarily as likely to throw a booming weeknight party or to ruin a carpet with beer stains.

“The problem is with the HUD program itself,” Gulbransen said. “It’s important that owners are given incentives to participate in these programs. Typically, the more rules and regulations you place on them, the more likely they are to choose a market-rate tenant.”

In reality, she said, her members rarely even get solicitations from voucher-holders, often because of the perception that it’s impossible to find a unit in Berkeley.

That said, the Berkeley Housing Authority is currently writing more than 1,500 Section 8 rent checks a month. That includes specialized programs for veterans, homeless people, and tenants of nonprofit developers and at single-room-occupancy hotels. The city still has funding for 105 additional new vouchers this calendar year, said BHA’s Rachel Gonzales-Levine. Forty-five of those have already been issued to households hunting for housing, while others haven’t been distributed yet, she said.

Vouchers represent just one piece of the city’s rental assistance package, Chakko said. He noted that Berkeley also provides Shelter Plus Care vouchers, another federally funded program that includes supportive services. The city also requires market-rate developers to build affordable units in their projects or contribute to the city’s Housing Trust Fund, as well as subsidizes nonprofit affordable developments.

In recent years, the city has actually seen an increase in property owners proactively participating in the Section 8 program, Gonzales-Levine said. Those are landlords who come to the city wanting to rent to voucher-holders, rather than entering into a contract with BHA once a tenant applies. But Gonzales-Levine attributes that uptick to slight changes in the market rather than the income ordinance.

“Anecdotally BHA still has voucher holders who come into the office and state they cannot find a unit,” she said in an email. Jay Kelekian, executive director of the Berkeley Rent Board, said his staff hears similar reports and counsels those people on where they can seek help.

Mitchell is happy not be among those 45 households still on the hunt.

In March she won the lottery — the housing lottery, that is, and snagged a one-bedroom unit in a brand new senior housing complex in Berkeley. The development is run by Satellite Affordable Housing Associates, which takes her Section 8 voucher. Mitchell’s daughter helped her move in.

Inside her unit, boxes are still piled up. Mitchell has two slipped discs in her back and isn’t supposed to lift more than five pounds at a time. There isn’t much storage space to put all that stuff in, anyway.

But the place is clean, quiet and, “of the utmost importance,” safe, she said. The privacy and home base will give Mitchell the time and space she needs to finalize her divorce with the man who beat her and make up some of that lost sleep.

There’s also a kitchen where she cooks all her meals. She’s already daydreaming about Thanksgiving, the first one her family will have spent together in years.

Ed. note: This article previously stated that SG Real Estate had posted a Craigslist ad that said “No Section 8.” That statement was based on an erroneous advertisement posted by a different management company. SG Real Estate rents to many tenants with Section 8 vouchers, according to company leadership.

This story is part of SF Homeless Project. On July 31, Berkeleyside is joining, for the third time, with dozens of Bay Area media outlets for one day of coverage focused on people living on the streets and in shelters.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...