Robert Gardner has used a federal Section 8 housing voucher since 2010. In 2021, when someone broke into his apartment, the now-32-year-old reached out to a Section 8 counselor and secured a new Section 8 voucher that allowed him to move to a different neighborhood.
But every time Gardner tried to apply for a new apartment, brokers stopped responding to his messages after he mentioned being on Section 8.
Gardner, who was then completing an urban studies minor at the University of California at Los Angeles, was aware that Los Angeles had just passed an ordinance making Section 8 discrimination illegal. He decided to start logging his responses when applying for apartments, communicating over email and text message so that he had a record of brokers violating the law.
That strategy led to a lawsuit, filed on his behalf by Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) and Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. The suit names 22 different defendants, all brokers and landlords who explicitly told Gardner they would not accept his Section 8 voucher. (Gardner has a mental health disability, which led him to be connected with Disability Rights.)
“The homeless crisis is so bad that we can’t afford to have people discriminating against people who are looking for housing,” Gardner says. “It’s ridiculous. And there’s nobody enforcing it…what good is your law if people are just laughing at you?”
The lack of legal enforcement from the city or state—the city has never filed a lawsuit enforcing the ordinance and the state has filed just one lawsuit to enforce a separate, statewide ban on Section 8 discrimination—has left voucher holders with few options. “Without enforcement, really, there’s no incentive for landlords to comply,” says Michelle Uzeta, an attorney with Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund who is representing Gardner in court.
“We wanted to at least send a message that somebody’s doing enforcement and hope that it would have a deterrent effect on some landlords.” The lawsuit reached settlements with two of the defendants in April, both owners of multi-family apartments in LA. The owners agreed to provide fair housing training for staff, state in advertisements that they accept Section 8, and report data on Section 8 applications and acceptance to DREDF. Defendants will also pay $35,000 to Gardner.
The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund’s lawsuit in LA is part of a wave of civil rights lawsuits around the country that housing advocates believe could bolster protection against source-of-income discrimination, as Next City/Shelterforce reported last month. But some housing advocates believe state governments have filed lawsuits too sparingly, putting the responsibility onto outside organizations.
Gardner says the lawsuit came only after exhausting all other options: Neither the city’s attorneys nor the state’s Civil Rights Department was willing to sue landlords on his behalf when he brought them his evidence, he says, and several nonprofit attorneys turned down his case as well.
“The overwhelming majority of the attorneys just would not take my case at all,” he says.
In 2019, Los Angeles passed an ordinance banning discrimination against Section 8 voucher holders. According to the city, only 53 percent of Section 8 voucher holders were able to find an apartment to rent at the time; the result of discrimination, low vacancy rates and high housing costs. HUD reported that 76.4 percent of landlords contacted by phone in the city said they did not accept Section 8 vouchers.
The ordinance “prohibits discrimination based upon a person’s use of rental assistance or other sources of income as payment for rent.” It also prohibits landlords from setting different terms for voucher holders, including adding surcharges to their rent.
But LA’s law doesn’t impose any fines or fees for landlords or lay out penalties; rather, it shifts enforcement to civil court, allowing tenants to recoup damages equal to three months’ rent or three times the “actual damages,” whichever is higher.
Yet the city does not have any attorneys dedicated to Section 8 housing cases and has not filed any lawsuits against landlords violating the law, despite the fact that a state investigation by the Civil Rights Department found such violation was rampant.
A public information officer for the Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD) told Next City/Shelterforce that the agency “may receive complaints about landlords refusing to take Section 8 vouchers” in violation of the municipal code. According to the department, it received 191 complaints in 2020, 118 in 2021, and 113 in 2022.
LAHD says it contracts with a nonprofit called the Housing Rights Center to investigate Section 8 discrimination. LAHD directed Next City/Shelterforce to the city attorney’s office for inquiries about lawsuits enforcing the Section 8 ordinance. The city attorney’s office said that it does not file Section 8 lawsuits and said only the nonprofit Housing Rights Center files fair housing lawsuits.
The Housing Rights Center did not respond to a request for comment, but the organization’s website details at least one lawsuit filed in 2021 against a landlord discriminating against an elderly tenant with a Section 8 voucher. The lawsuit was filed on the basis that the landlord had violated Section 8 laws at the city, county, and state level. According to the 2021 press release, “HRC receives numerous complaints each year about landlords and management companies refusing to accept these important vouchers. In 2020, HRC launched a campaign to identify, educate, and hold accountable landlords and property management companies in Los Angeles County that routinely discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders.”
Gardner says he initially took his evidence to the LA housing department but was told they weren’t initiating lawsuits.
“Their department didn’t take cases of housing discrimination, which I thought was really interesting,” he says. “I was like, well, you’re the damn city, you literally have a housing department. What do you mean?”
The sheer number of named defendants in Gardner’s lawsuit suggests the problem is rampant. But Uzeta says that Gardner was denied by 25-40 other landlords who are not named in the lawsuit.
Amid a housing crisis, the stakes of source-of-income discrimination are high. Gardner’s Section 8 voucher had to be used within 60 days, although he was able to request extensions. Yet many tenants lose out on the rent subsidy due to ongoing discrimination and have to apply again.
“A lot of these vouchers just are not being used and are being turned back in and given to other people,” Uzeta says.
Gardner, who was finally able to secure an apartment with his Section 8 voucher, said he was days away from the voucher lapsing when he finally got a “yes.” His voucher was issued June 11, 2021, and extended until March 8, 2022, his lawyer says. Gardner secured his new unit on March 7, 2022. Initially, the broker in his current apartment told him that they did not accept Section 8, but Gardner then CC’d his attorney in his email response and let the broker know they were in violation of the law. The broker said they were mistaken and accepted his voucher.
Aaron Carr, founder and executive director of the national housing watchdog Housing Rights Initiative (HRI), says Los Angeles has some of the most rampant Section 8 discrimination he has seen. The organization, which filed a New York City lawsuit against allegedly discriminatory landlords, also has an ongoing investigation into Section 8 discrimination in Los Angeles.
Carr says that while he can’t give an exact number, he estimates that about half of landlords and brokers seem to turn down vouchers altogether. He attributes this to lax enforcement and a tight rental housing market that enables landlords to turn away tenants.
“It’s a perfect storm, if landlords are desperate to fill their units they’re more likely to rent to Section 8 holders,” Carr says.
The state’s Civil Rights Department’s lawsuit enforcing the statewide ban on Section 8 discrimination is a good first step, Carr says, but he believes they need to go further.
“I would say good that they’re showing an increased level of interest in voucher discrimination…they have to go beyond that and do systematic robust enforcement,” Carr says.
Without government resources enforcing the law, the responsibility is offloaded into the resource-strained nonprofit sector, he says. “At the end of the day, HRI is not the government, we’re a tiny nonprofit,” he says. “The federal government is paying for these vouchers, cities should be going crazy ensuring their residents are able to use them.”
According to a November LA Times story, the state legislature had funded a budget in 2020 that would have included four staffers for the Civil Rights Department assigned to enforce Section 8 voucher discrimination, but those roles were dropped from the budget early in the pandemic when revenue was uncertain.
Yet California received billions of dollars for housing and homelessness initiatives during several rounds of federal stimulus spending, raising the question of why Section 8 enforcement was never funded in subsequent years.
Gardner’s attorney says that when he took his complaints to the state Civil Rights Department, they offered to have him choose a single case for further investigation. Gardner declined and Uzeta filed the lawsuit on his behalf.
In an email, the Civil Rights Department said they were unable to comment on the deliberative process regarding Gardner’s lawsuit.
“The Civil Rights Department employs a range of tools to address civil rights violations, including through fair housing testing, mediation, violation notices, and legal action. In this instance, Mr. Gardner chose to pursue action through his own counsel, which is an important avenue for addressing civil rights violations across the state,” reads an email from the Civil Rights Department’s public affairs team.
The department says it takes other measures to resolve fair housing complaints, including 21 settlements related to source of income violations in 2020 and 51 in 2021. “In addition, in 2022, our office sponsored fair housing testing in Los Angeles County, which identified widespread source of income discrimination. Where this occurs, the Civil Rights Department takes steps to help remedy the violations within the constraints of our existing resources,” a spokesperson said.
On the city level, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass took office this year with the goal of drastically reducing unsheltered homelessness, but has announced no new measures regarding Section 8 voucher enforcement. Bass has, however, recently requested $250 million in funding for her “Inside Safe” initiative, a series of homeless sweeps in which unhoused people are meant to be connected to long-term motel stays. Bass’s office did not return a request for comment for this story.
[RELATED ARTICLE: What LA’s New Shelter Program Can Learn From Statewide Efforts]
There is evidence that cities with source of income protections have higher rates of voucher use even without enforcement. A 2011 HUD study found that just the existence of source of income laws improve utilization rates. A more recent Urban Institute study found Section 8 protections could lead voucher holders to move to less economically depressed neighborhoods, but that the change takes a few years as enforcement ramps up.
Gardner said he was only looking for housing, and only decided to pursue a lawsuit after reading news stories about other people forced into dangerous situations because their vouchers were being denied.
“I wasn’t trying to sue anybody,” he says. He says he has mental health disabilities that limit the time he can devote to the legal case. “I don’t want to do something like this. I just simply want to find housing.”
This story was published through a collaboration with Shelterforce and Next City. Next City is a nonprofit news outlet that publishes solutions to the problems that oppress people in cities, inspiring social, economic, and environmental change through journalism and events around the world.