In response to concerns that the Bay Area’s housing shortage is making it harder for Section 8 voucher holders to compete in the rental-applicant pool, The Oakland City Council passed the Equitable Access to Low-Income Housing (EQUAL) Ordinance this week which will prohibit landlords from:
- Refusing to rent to persons who receive housing assistance
- Applying tenant selection standards that disadvantage recipients of housing assistance
- Altering the terms of rental agreements; or limiting facilities, services, or repairs for recipients of housing assistance
- Making statements that indicate preference or prejudice based on a prospective tenant’s receipt of housing assistance
Under new regulations in Oakland, landlords face tough consequences for discriminating against applicants who receive Section 8 housing assistance. The City Attorney is now authorized to bring civil actions for restitution, litigation and investigation costs, and attorney’s fees. The District Attorney will be able to impose a criminal infraction for first-time violations and a misdemeanor for multiple-violations, which could result in jail time.
The ordinance is similar to a statewide bill that has been progressing through Sacramento as well, SB-329, which if it passes, would preempt this local measure. The Oakland City Council voted to pass their own ordinance to guarantee this protection for low-income Oakland residents regardless of the outcome of the state bill.
Under the new Oakland ordinance, aggrieved current or prospective tenants and non-profits can bring civil actions against landlords for restitution and/or monetary recovery of up to three times the greater of: actual damages, one month’s rent for the unit; or the HUD Small Area Fair Market Rent for the unit. Owners may also be liable for litigation costs, attorney’s fees, and punitive damages.
The ordinance does not restrict landlords’ ability to evaluate prospective tenants based on criteria unrelated to receipt of housing assistance. Presumably, this means other financial-health indicators such as credit score requirements will still be permitted. Rental units that are occupied by or share a bathroom or kitchen with an owner or their family member will be exempt. We still recommend that you conduct thorough tenant screening that is in compliance with Fair Housing Laws.
While it remains to be seen exactly how reporting and verification of such violations will play out, now is the time for all Oakland landlords to make sure their application processes are squeaky clean. If you’ve ever used phrases in your rental ads like “No Section 8,” you will want to stop that practice immediately! You may also want to consider a standardized method for applicant selection when multiple qualified parties apply, such as giving priority based on when applications are received with a timestamp (e.g. within an email program) to be able to defend your applicant selection process.