Anyone who helps people find housing has likely heard tales of landlords turning down potential tenants if they plan to use a government voucher to help pay their rent.

That kind of discrimination is illegal under city laws, and Long Beach has just settled its first criminal case targeting the problem.

City Prosecutor Doug Haubert said his office has been working with the city’s Housing Authority for nearly a year on a pilot program to enforce fair housing rules, and the recently settled case rose from that collaboration.

“We are trying to educate landlords on what they can and can’t do and educate the public,” Haubert said. “Our primary goal is not to punish landlords.”

The settlement with Amber Family Partnership, a rental company with properties in San Clemente and Torrance as well as Long Beach, was negotiated after the city got a complaint about the company rejecting someone trying to rent a one-bedroom apartment, Haubert said.

His office followed up, and “the rental manager told the investigator that they do not rent to Section 8 (voucher) tenants,” he said.

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The city filed a criminal complaint in October and began working with the company, with both parties ultimately agreeing that the company would plead “no contest” to violating Long Beach municipal code (a misdemeanor), the company would not discriminate against prospective tenants in future, and it would donate $1,500 to the state’s Fair Housing Foundation, according to documents Haubert provided.

Attorney Fred Thiagarajah, who represented Amber Family Partnership, emphasized that the company has no history of discrimination and that the case will be dismissed after six months as long as the company abides by the terms of the settlement.

“The issue in this case was more about people who were miseducated” rather than a purposeful attempt to discriminate, Thiagarajah said, adding that the problem stemmed from one employee who misunderstood the law.

Even when landlords are willing, it can be hard for voucher holders to find a place to live because there’s so much competition for lower-priced apartments, said Anna Topolewski, Long Beach Housing Authority’s acting bureau manager.

But city housing staff have also heard stories from frustrated searchers who said they found an apartment, only to be told on applying, “We don’t take Section 8,” Topolewski said.

The front gates of the Terrace Apartments at the 3600 block of Ocean Boulevard, where a prospective tenant said she was turned away for having a Section 8 voucher in Long Beach, Monday, March 18, 2024. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

To try to lower potential barriers for tenants, she said, the city has begun offering $2,500 leasing bonuses to landlords who are new to working with vouchers, it provides aid to help lower-income tenants pay security deposits and application fees, and it promises property owners money for repairs and maintenance if a voucher-holding tenant causes more damage than their deposit covers.

The city has received about 50 complaints alleging discrimination since launching the pilot program last year, said Assistant City Prosecutor Randall Fudge, who handled the case with Amber.

Haubert said one thing they’ve learned through the program is that most Long Beach landlords follow the law, and he hopes the news that his office prosecuted a discrimination case “serves as a reminder to all landlords that housing discrimination is serious.”

Topolewski said housing providers should know the law to protect themselves. Also, she said, during the widespread job and income losses of the pandemic when some tenants couldn’t pay rent, voucher programs ensured that voucher holders’ landlords were mostly made whole.

“By not accepting folks with vouchers, I think that they’re hurting their bottom line,” she said.

More information on fair housing is available here, and tenants can learn more about discrimination or file a complaint at this link.