By ADRIAN RODRIGUEZ | firstname.lastname@example.org | Marin Independent Journal
Novato landlords will soon be prohibited from turning away prospective tenants who use Section 8 housing vouchers when a new ordinance becomes law.
After making minor changes, the Novato City Council this week voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance on its first reading, following guidelines set by county officials. A second reading and final vote is scheduled for Sept. 11. If it passes then, the anti-bias housing rule becomes effective in 30 days.
Councilwoman Denise Athas thanked city staff and others who worked to bring the ordinance forward. “It’s such an important item and I think whatever we end up with, the fact that we get it passed is what’s really crucial,” Athas said.
Marin’s Board of Supervisors approved its fair housing ordinance — which forbids landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants with Section 8 or other rental assistance vouchers — in November 2016. Supervisors at the time said they hoped other local municipalities would follow suit adopting similar regulations, in part so that any confusion for renters or landlords could be avoided about where, exactly, the rules apply.
The Novato City Council considered a version of that ordinance in May, but ultimately held off on a decision, considering that there were concerns the regulations didn’t state clearly enough that they applied only to rental housing. At the May meeting, a representative of Nova-Ro, a nonprofit based out of Novato that provides housing to low-income seniors, told the council he was afraid the fair housing ordinance could get in the way of a requirement his organization places on its clients that ensures operations run smoothly. Prospective tenants who apply to live in Nova-Ro’s units have to prove family members or other caretakers live within reasonable distances to the organization’s housing complexes, and can be available to help out during personal emergencies.
In July, the city held a community workshop to discuss options. Bob Brown, Novato’s community development director, said staff reviewed the ordinance that the Fairfax Town Council greenlighted earlier this year. The version of the ordinance presented Tuesday attempted to address all council members’ and landlord concerns, he said. “So with that, I hope we’ve hit the mark this time around,” Brown said.
With regard to a section of the ordinance that deals with civil liability and what the courts can award to a person who is discriminated against, Councilwoman Pat Eklund asked if the Novato ordinance could match exactly the wording of the Fairfax ordinance. Assistant City Attorney Veronica Nebb and City Manager Regan Candelario confirmed that the edit would be acceptable. After Athas made a motion, Eklund added the amendment, and it passed 5-0.
While fair housing advocates applauded the city for taking on the issue, many voiced concerns that they would like to see more consistency in rules adopted by Marin jurisdictions.
David Levin, managing attorney at Legal Aid Marin, said that he serves a client who uses Section 8 housing vouchers, and she was denied housing by an apartment complex that was on the wrong side of the street, just outside the county’s jurisdiction. “The county’s ordinance applied on one side of the street,” he said. “So any opportunity to make the laws uniform across Marin really helps.” He added that after searching homes for rent in Novato, he found six listings that said no Section 8. “The discrimination issue here is very serious,” Levin said.
Caroline Peattie, executive director of Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California said another issue is that the ordinance allows landlords to require that a tenant has a cosigner or guarantor who is a blood relative and within a one-hour drive of the residence. “I think that creates barriers to housing opportunities for people of color and individuals with disabilities and people who don’t have local connections, even if they qualify by income or age,” which goes against the purpose of the ordinance, Peattie said. “So there is a little bit of contradictory language within the ordinance.”
Novato resident Peter Mendoza, who uses a wheelchair and once benefited from the Section 8 housing program, called it a wonderful program and said seniors and people with disabilities often struggle to find housing. Mendoza urged the council to remove language that would allow landlords to require a cosigner to rent. “I think it’s important to remember, many people with disabilities and seniors don’t have families that can cosign, or may not have families at all,” Mendoza said. “I really think that if that is kept in, you’re making it difficult for a lot of people who would otherwise benefit from the program in Novato with the ordinance.”
Officials in San Rafael said the City Council is poised to adopt its own fair housing rules at its Oct. 1 meeting.