The history of Section 8 in California is a case study of how local and state governments can stymie federal law. Section 8, officially the Housing Choice Voucher Program, is a federal assistance program administered on the state level by local governments. The first federal public housing law was signed in 1937, and its goal was to build affordable housing in order to renew a collapsed housing industry and solve housing shortages.
A Shift in Purpose
However, by 1974 the goal had shifted from providing housing for working families to assisting the nation’s poor, and President Nixon turned to the private housing market to do so. His model not only called for new construction of public housing complexes, but also a voucher program that residents could use to pay rent. According to KQED, Under Section 8, voucher holders would be responsible for finding approved housing and would pay 30% of the rent to the landlord, while the federal government would pay the other 70%.
Creating a Shortage
California’s efforts to fight public housing laws began in 1950, with the passing of Article 34 to the state’s constitution mandating localities approve any low-income housing construction before the project could be developed. This was followed in 1978 by Proposition 13, which capped property taxes, and created an environment where new housing and construction would cost cities more through required services than they could recapture in tax revenue. Additional laws since then have strengthened and expanded landlord rights by limiting rent control and increasing their ability to evict tenants.
In short, state laws and local zoning ensure that a community’s “not in my back yard” mentality has not only created a severe shortage of affordable housing, but also a near impossibility to use any housing vouchers that may be issued.
According to NBC News, approximately 1.3 million California renters live “at or below federal poverty guidelines,” but there are only 286,844 affordable housing units in the state. Waitlists to receive a voucher are long. In 2017, the Los Angeles wait list had approximately 40,000 families who had been on the list since at least 2009, and a wait time of approximately eleven years. In a 2018 study by Urban Institute, Los Angeles was second in the nation (76%) for landlords refusing to accept housing vouchers. A recent report found that 70% of Section 8 housing vouchers expired before their lucky recipients could use them.
Recently, public sentiment in California appears to have changed as the lack of affordable housing has begun to affect even residents considered high-income. On October 8, 2019, Governor Gavin Newson signed into law State Bill 329, which specifies California landlords cannot refuse to rent to residents using Section 8 vouchers. This follows similar local laws in Santa Clara County, San Francisco, San Diego, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Jose. It remains to be seen whether or not these legislative efforts will be effective.
Despite the law going into effect on January 1, 2020, “no Section 8” language continued to be found in rental advertisements across the state at the end of the month, and in early February a bill that would have allowed new construction of multi-family housing near mass transit previously reserved for single family residences only was defeated.
Will history show that California residents’ desire for affordable housing outweighed their “not in my back yard” attitude? Only time will tell.