San Diego Housing Commission Loses Suit Over Ignoring City’s History of Segregation

by on January 19, 2023 · 2 comments

in Civil Rights, San Diego

By Dorian Hargrove / CBS8 / January 16, 2023

Beginning in 2023, thousands of low-income families in San Diego can move into what were traditionally unaffordable neighborhoods after the San Diego Housing Commission raised the value of Section 8 housing vouchers throughout the city.

The change takes effect after a protracted legal battle brought by the San Diego NAACP and the San Diego Tenant Union, which accused housing commission leadership of making San Diego neighborhoods more racially segregated and preventing lower-income households from using their housing vouchers in higher-income neighborhoods.

On January 5, after nearly four years of litigation, Superior Court Judge Kenneth Medel ordered the San Diego Housing Commission to pay more than $1 million in attorneys fees to lawyers who filed the lawsuit as well as pay nearly $600,000 of the commission’s legal fees as well.

The order came despite multiple objections from housing commission lawyers who claimed the lawsuit had nothing to do with the massive increase to Section 8 payment standards in higher-income communities. That increase boosted the value of vouchers in areas such as La Jolla, Mission Beach, and other low-poverty neighborhoods by approximately 37 percent from 2021 compared to last year, while the lawsuit was in court.

The housing commission, however, argued that its decision to increase the value of vouchers was an “ad hoc” decision made by the board.

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Medel refuted that claim.

“Surely, [the Housing Commission] 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.”

Added Medel, “the evidence does not rebut the inference that [the] lawsuit was a substantial factor in motivating [the Housing Commission’s] change in conduct.”
“San Diego is a segregated city”

In 2017, public advocate attorney, Parisa Ijadi-Maghsoodi sent a letter to the then-president of the housing commission, Richard Gentry, urging him to implement the changes that were suggested by the Obama administration to address what it determined was to be rising segregation in large American cities, including San Diego.
In its 2015 directive, the Obama Administration found San Diego to be among the most segregated cities that it analyzed, with 45 percent of families that had Section 8 housing vouchers living in high-poverty neighborhoods.

The administration urged housing authorities to adjust the payment standards in order to allow low-income families to have access to better school districts and services.

It did so by adjusting the payment standards by looking at rents according to zip codes and not the entire metropolitan area.

The Housing Commission, however, did not follow the directive. In an August 2017 interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, former president, Gentry categorized the Obama-era directive as “nothing more than social engineering.”

Meanwhile, local poverty advocates implored the San Diego Housing Commission to change course.

“Segregation levels today mirror those that existed in the 1960s,” read Ijadi-Maghsoodi’s August 21, 2017 letter. “This re-segregation of communities is a crisis exacerbated in metropolitan areas, like San Diego, where vouchers are accepted only in low-opportunity, high-poverty neighborhoods, if at all.”

Despite the pleas from housing and poverty advocates, the housing commission continued with its own strategies under the Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Work Programs, which allow housing authorities to use Federal funds more efficiently.

MaryAnn Russ served as a Deputy Director for the Housing and Urban Development as well as housing authorities nationwide. Russ considers San Diego one of the most segregated cities in California.

“The problem with the housing commission’s Section 8 voucher program was that payment standards were so low that the lowest income voucher holders could not use their vouchers to get to better neighborhoods.  Yes, they could have their rent subsidized, but only in the lowest-income neighborhoods,” said Russ.

Russ added that she feels the San Diego Housing Commission purposely failed to report its low payment standard.

“Each year, when an authority applies for its funding it is required to certify that it is complying with all applicable civil rights and fair housing laws,” said Russ. “The housing commission submitted those certifications, but I do not believe that they were honest – the manner in which it established its payment standards absolutely repressed the ability of the lowest income voucher holders to move to neighborhoods with better housing and services.”

Russ said that while lower-income neighborhoods are typically where public housing and low-income developments are located, the housing voucher program is meant to change that and allow families to move out of those areas and into neighborhoods with better schools, more jobs, and other amenities.

In March of 2019, the San Diego branch of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] and the San Diego Tenant Union sued the housing commission over what it found to be the commission’s discriminatory policies.

As a way to show the disparities in payment standards for housing vouchers, attorney Ijadi-Maghsoodi and her researchers looked at San Diego zip codes and the number of vouchers that were used in those areas. According to the data included in the lawsuit, in coastal communities of Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, and portions of La Jolla, areas in which more than 79 percent of residents were White, there were only 54 housing vouchers given out of more than 13,600 housing units.

Meanwhile, in the 92173 zip code which includes communities such as Otay Mesa, and San Ysidro. a total of 915 housing vouchers were distributed out of 4,368 units.
The same could be said for South San Diego zip codes as well.

In January 2022, after nearly three years of litigation, the San Diego housing commission increased its payment standards for housing vouchers.

For a family looking to rent a two-bedroom house or apartment in low-poverty neighborhoods, the housing commission bumped the payment standard up from $2,196 in 2021 to $3,023 in 2022, an increase of $827.

It was the largest increase in a number of years.

Response from the San Diego Housing Commission

A spokesperson for the San Diego Housing Commission told CBS 8 that it could not discuss pending litigation, however, it did say that the lawsuit did not prompt any changes to the housing authority’s voucher program.

“There was no ruling, judgment, or finding by the court in connection with this litigation that required SDHC to make any changes to its administration of federal rental assistance through its Choice Communities Initiative. The case was dismissed with prejudice by the court.”

As for the judge’s ruling for the housing commission to pay the $1.6 million in attorneys fees, for both the plaintiffs and its own, the spokesperson said the amount was far less than what was requested, adding “SDHC is evaluating its next steps regarding the attorney’s fees issue in this matter. SDHC continues to help pay rent for thousands of families with low income in communities throughout the City of San Diego.”

However, attorney Ijadi-Maghsoodi has no doubt that her client’s lawsuit forced positive change from the housing authority.

“The San Diego Housing Commission was administering a policy that entrenched segregated housing patterns. Its payment standards for housing vouchers perpetuated rather than mitigated segregation. The law is very clear that it’s not enough for government entities to simply refrain from discriminating, they must take steps to overcome patterns of segregation. The housing commission here was engaging in a practice that amounted to segregation, which has been illegal for over a century.”

Added Ijadi-Maghsoodi, “A child’s zip code is the greatest determinant of their long-term outcomes and lifespan. Studies show that a child who is able to move from a high-poverty neighborhood to a low-poverty area increases their lifetime earnings by over $300,000. And these higher earnings result in greater tax revenue, which exponentially offsets the cost of that housing subsidy. That means these families are able to increase their long-term outcomes.”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie January 20, 2023 at 10:45 am

I knew Kenny Medel before he became a judge — he had an office on the same floor as my office in the former Chamber of Commerce building in downtown. He was then a very level-headed guy, had a good sense of humor and was easy to get along with. I respect his opinions.


LORI SALDANA January 21, 2023 at 1:42 pm

This is an important victory- congratulations to Parisa (An OBecian) for her commitment and years-long effort on this!


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