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San Diego To Boost Housing Vouchers, But Declines More Generous Approach

An apartment building that accepts housing vouchers in the Rolando neighborho...

Photo by Claire Trageser

Above: An apartment building that accepts housing vouchers in the Rolando neighborhood of San Diego, January 19, 2018.

At the beginning of 2018, some low-income San Diegans started getting more federal assistance for rent to live in more expensive neighborhoods. But while a recent court ruling could have given them even more, that additional money is likely not coming their way.

The court ruling clears a way for a new method of determining how much federal assistance people get for rent depending on the size of their family and income level.

It offers more money to people who want to live in more expensive neighborhoods. The old method meant that people with housing vouchers were usually segregated into the least expensive parts of a city. San Diego is taking a middle road between the new and old methods.

People below a certain income level can apply for housing vouchers. They often spend years on a waiting list, but eventually receive some federal assistance to pay their rent. The amount they had been getting was calculated using the median of all rents in the city. For example, a family might get $1,074 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. But if they wanted to live somewhere with a higher rent, they would need to make up the difference.

That formula meant that families with housing vouchers could usually only afford to live in lower-income neighborhoods, which led to more segregation in the city, said Parisa Ijadi-Maghsoodi, a San Diego poverty attorney.

Right now, more than half of Latino and African-American families with housing vouchers in San Diego live in neighborhoods with poverty rates above 20 percent, according to U.S. Census Data.

A new rule from the Obama administration sought to change that, and directed 23 metropolitan areas, including San Diego, to use a new rent standard. Instead of using one median rent for an entire region, the rule says cities should instead calculate rents by zip codes. That way, people can get more money to live in more expensive neighborhoods.

That meant a family who wanted to live in Clairemont, for example, would get about $1,420 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, instead of $1,074 a month, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

The point of the new rule is to desegregate neighborhoods and allow lower-income families access to better neighborhoods and better schools, Ijadi-Maghsoodi said.

But the San Diego Housing Commission, which oversees the local housing voucher program, is opting not to follow that new rule. Instead, the agency is taking a middle-ground approach, dividing neighborhoods up into three tiers to determine housing voucher amounts for low-, middle- and high-rent areas.

Under that system, the same family that wanted to live in Clairemont would get $1,208 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

The San Diego Housing Commission is exempt from the federal rule stipulating vouchers be determined by zip code, said its CEO, Rick Gentry.

Gentry said he does not want to use the higher-rent zip code system.

"It's a well-intentioned idea run a muck, and a good example of bureaucratic overkill," he said. "It's one of those cases where the remedy is worse than the problem the remedy was designed to fix in the first place."

"I understand what HUD was getting at, they're trying to help people move to nontraditional areas," he added. "It costs more to rent in say Point Loma or La Jolla than it's going to cost to live in San Ysidro or Encanto or Nestor. I understand that. I believe in providing opportunity and choice for people, but I don't believe in social engineering. I think what the HUD system did, crossed the line from providing help and assistance to social engineering and tried to predicate where people lived."

Gentry said the San Diego Housing Commission's three-tier system was a more reasonable way of doling out rental assistance.

After the Obama administration made the change to the zip-code based system, HUD under the Trump administration said it would suspend implementation of the new rule. In response, a group of civil rights organizations sued the Trump administration. In December, a judge ruled that the Obama-era rule that uses zip codes should go forward at the start of this year.

A spokesman for HUD said he was not sure if the San Diego Housing Commission had to follow the court ruling or not, "but if they say they are exempt, I would take that as gospel."

Deborah Thrope, a lawyer for the National Housing Law Project, looked at the San Diego Housing Commission's agreement with HUD and said it does appear they are exempt from the court ruling.

"HUD approved the San Diego Housing Commission's plan, which included a proposal to use an alternative method to set rents using a three-tiered system," she said. "The three-tiered rents are lower than the (zip code-based system) in many neighborhoods, and therefore the San Diego Housing Commission's plan will continue to limit housing choice and mobility for voucher families."

Poverty Lawyer Ijadi-Maghsoodi, also believes the San Diego Housing Commission should use the zip code-based system.

"We're so racially and class segregated right now that moving forward immediately is what needs to be done right now," she said.

At the beginning of 2018, some low-income San Diegans started getting more federal assistance for rent to live in more expensive neighborhoods. But while a recent court ruling could have given them even more, that additional money is likely not coming their way.

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