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Legal battle over San Diego housing vouchers continues, with a new twist

The exterior of the San Diego Housing Commission, June 27, 2018.
Kris Arciaga
The exterior of the San Diego Housing Commission, June 27, 2018.

Last year, in the midst of a long-running lawsuit, the city’s housing commission raised the maximum amount its voucher will cover significantly — increasing them by 37% for the most expensive neighborhoods. There was a $1 million legal fight over who gets credit for the higher amounts.

Each year, the San Diego Housing Commission receives several funding streams from the federal government, including one specifically for housing vouchers. The Housing Commission’s contract with the feds gives it flexibility in how to distribute that funding.

The agency’s main challenge is to help pay rent for as many low-income families as it can, while at the same time providing enough money to those who already have vouchers to choose the neighborhoods where they want to live.


It’s a difficult balancing act. Currently, 17,000 families in the city receive a voucher and there is a 10-year waiting list. Given the scarcity, the Housing Commission’s method for distributing the vouchers gets a lot of scrutiny. And since 2019, it’s been the subject of a court battle.

The San Diego NAACP and San Diego Tenants Union sued, saying that the Housing Commission didn’t use all of its federal voucher funding stream on actual vouchers and didn’t give people enough money to live in neighborhoods with better amenities and better schools. The suit argues that this causes racial segregation, because the bulk of voucher holders are not white.

While the Housing Commission regularly raises its vouchers amounts incrementally, the boost in 2022 for the most expensive neighborhoods was unusual. Last April, the Housing Commission informed the court that this change rendered the case moot. A month later, the lawsuit was dismissed and the plaintiffs declared victory. They said the increases were a direct result of their lawsuit.

“The substantial change the Housing Commission made constituted nothing short of a leapfrogging over years of woefully inadequate payment standards for high opportunity neighborhoods,” said Parisa Ijadi-Maghsoodi, the attorney for the plaintiffs. “The court found the Housing Commission made the change because of the lawsuit. This was right before the case was about to go to trial. If the case had proceeded to trial, the Housing Commission would have had to defend the discriminatory and segregative effects of its practice.”

But the Housing Commission objects to that idea. Interim CEO Jeff Davis said they raise their payment standards every year, and a few years ago challenged the federal government’s calculations for how much money San Diego gets. That challenge was successful, which allowed the agency to give more money to people who live in more expensive neighborhoods, Davis said.


“And that success allowed us to substantially raise our payment standards that year,” he said. “Our methodology for determining payment standards each year has not changed. Despite what some have implied, no litigation had any effect on these changes whatsoever.”

The issue has ramifications that go beyond who gets credit for the bigger vouchers. A recent court ruling in San Diego Superior Court stated that if plaintiffs succeed in bringing about change in their lawsuit, they can collect attorneys’ fees from the other side.

In the San Diego case, Superior Court Judge Kenneth Medel ruled in early January in favor of the plaintiffs. He wrote he was not persuaded by the Housing Commission’s claims that they increased the payments regardless of the lawsuit.

“Defendant claims there was no particular reason for the change in payment standards, and the decision was made on an ad hoc basis,” Medel wrote. “Surely, (the) Defendant is not picking numbers out of thin air and deciding on a whim that certain programs should receive more funding. In other words, even where the process may be described as ‘ad hoc,’ certain guiding principles are at play.”

Medel ruled that because the San Diego NAACP and San Diego Tenants Union lawsuit achieved its objectives by increasing voucher amounts, the San Diego Housing Commission has to repay the attorneys’ fees for the plaintiffs — which amount to more than $1 million.

That was half the amount Ijadi-Maghsoodi and other plaintiffs’ attorneys wanted. Medel said their calculation of costs was unreasonable. He also denied the Housing Commission’s request for attorneys fees.

Housing Commission CEO Davis said the legal battle may continue. During a closed session meeting on Jan. 12, the Housing Commission Board of Directors voted 6-0 to instruct their attorneys to explore further action.

At the beginning of this year, the San Diego Housing Commission boosted voucher amounts again, though not by as much as last year. Now, families can get around $3,114 for a two bedroom apartment in what are called “choice neighborhoods,” including Carmel Valley, University City, and Mission Valley. That’s up from $3,023 last year. The payments also increased for less expensive neighborhoods — now $2,470 in places like La Jolla, Pacific Beach and Point Loma and $1,798 for places like City Heights and San Ysidro.

That money helped Tasha Williamson, who holds a housing voucher. Her rent went up recently, but because of the increase, what she pays for housing stayed the same.

“Unfortunately, due to SDG&E going up, it really hasn't changed much,” she said. “And the fact that food has gone up, so it's almost back where I was at.”

Updated: January 31, 2023 at 11:12 AM PST
This story has been updated.