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Upcoming City Law To Give Low-Income San Diegans More Housing Opportunities

Jacquelina Hernandez Romero kneels at a kid's table in her apartment to play ...

Photo by Tarryn Mento

Above: Jacquelina Hernandez Romero kneels at a kid's table in her apartment to play with her grandsons Jeremiah, 5, and Andre, 11, March 20, 2019.

GUEST: Tarryn Mento, Speak City Heights reporter, KPBS news.

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Transcript

The two-bedroom apartment where Jacquelina Hernandez Romero lives is spacious enough to accommodate her four-generation family when her son and grandkids visit from out of town. But the $1,500 a month in rent is tough on Hernandez Romero's $2,000 monthly budget. She recently received a rental subsidy after more than a decade on a waiting list, but her landlord didn't have to accept it.

It's a problem faced by many low-income San Diegans, but it's about to change under a new city law. An ordinance approved last year bars landlords from rejecting applicants because they use rental subsidies, especially Section 8 vouchers.

Councilwoman Georgette Gomez, who represents City Heights and is now the council president, proposed the measure in July to help low-income tenants find housing in high opportunity areas and avoid homelessness.

"All we are asking is that landlords allow Section 8 to apply and to evaluate (recipients) in the same way as any other applicant," Gomez said at the meeting.

The law goes into effect later this year, but many landlords are unfamiliar with the coming changes or are still opposed. Attorney Rosalina Spencer with Legal Aid Society of San Diego said the nonprofit is holding educational sessions ahead of the law to bring property owners and managers up to speed.

"The temperature with the landlords is one, being unaware of this ordinance being passed, being unaware that they’re no longer allowed to exclude a certain type of tenant from their applicant pool," Spencer said, "And I think there might be a little bit of resistance."

Critics have said accepting government subsidies also means accepting more regulations. That includes inspections, which can delay the time between identifying a tenant and receiving rent.

The local housing authority, the San Diego Housing Commission, said it is streamlining these hurdles. The agency's Senior Vice President of Rental Assistance Azucena Valladolid said this month it began offering inspections even before a voucher recipient moves in.

"Before the landlord would have to wait to identify a tenant, fill out some paperwork, then we would go out and inspect the unit, so a pre-inspection process allows us to expedite that process a lot quicker," Valladolid said.

She said the Housing Commission also receives feedback from a newly formed advisory committee comprised of rental industry representatives. Working with the group, the commission shortened the time it takes the agency to provide the first rental payment.

The ordinance officially goes into effect in August, but that would've been too late for Hernandez Romero, who was awarded Section 8 in October.

She already knew her complex had a no-voucher policy. She received the subsidy in 2006 and gave it up because she didn't want to break her lease, but she didn't want to pass it up a second time. Rent eats up most of the household income that comes from disability insurance for her husband and mom, for whom she is caretaker.

"I go 'God this is what we have for the rent, this is what we have leftover for food, this is what we have for bills, this is it,'" she said.

Hernandez Romero said Legal Aid's Spencer stepped in to negotiate with management company R.A. Snyder Properties on her behalf. President Rick Snyder said when the company was contacted about Hernandez Romero's situation, it agreed to accept her voucher even before the law officially went into effect.

"We made a decision to apply this request in this circumstance now as we have on other properties," Snyder said.

He said all properties the company manages in San Diego will also accept vouchers ahead of the law's implementation date and it is making the suggestion to others that are outside city limits. But he said past policies against Section 8 were due to the bureaucracy of the housing program and not how the rent is paid.

"It is not just about the source of income," Snyder said. "It is the added experience of the burden associated with working with a federally mandated but locally administered housing program that adds a layer of complexity and burden to the process for a landlord."

Hernandez Romero said she thanked God when she learned her subsidy would be accepted.

"And I said, 'Bless them for helping us, bless them for wanting to work with us,'" she said through tears.

But she doesn’t have the voucher just yet. An inspection found a few things that need to be addressed, including a new rug and safety upgrades to an exterior railing leading up to her apartment. The carpet installation was scheduled, but the company is still figuring out the railing. It's seeking bids to upgrade all railings in the complex, which could cost around $9,000.

Snyder said he wasn't aware that would delay Hernandez Romero's subsidy.

"Our experience is that while we can be getting that work arranged for the railings, that should not hold up the process of this tenant being able to secure the Section 8 voucher," he said.

However, Valladolid from the Housing Commission said safety matters must be addressed before the agency can approve an agreement to subsidize a tenant's rent.

In the meantime, Hernandez Romero said she is praying other landlords and property managers give voucher recipients a chance so they can avoid relocating, especially families who may have kids with special needs.

"Then they have to uproot them and go to some other place because (landlords) wouldn’t just try to work with them, so I’m praying a lot," Hernandez Romero said.

Once she officially receives the subsidy, she said she plans to use the monthly financial relief to save for a more reliable car. The 1994 vehicle that was donated to her can’t make the drive to Hemet where her grandsons live. She said right now she only gets to see them a few times a year.

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