close up of houses in a row
If landlords choose to rent to a Housing Choice Voucher tenant, the Oakland Housing Authority pays a portion of the rent. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland officials put out a call Monday to local property owners, encouraging them to rent to tenants with housing vouchers, who often struggle to find landlords willing to take them on. 

“There are always a number of families searching,” said Michelle Hasan, director of leased housing for the Oakland Housing Authority, at a press conference at the OHA headquarters Monday. “The available units are in short supply.”

In the spring, the city received 515 new Housing Choice Vouchers—previously called Section 8—through the federal COVID-19 stimulus package. That’s in addition to about 13,100 already in use, according to the housing authority, which administers the federal program in Oakland. 

From the new batch, only 38 households have successfully used their vouchers to move into housing, and 160 others are actively searching for homes, Hasan said. The city wants to sign up 200 additional landlords to participate in the voucher program by March.

Through the program, voucher-holders, who must be considered “very low-income,” pay 30-40% of their income on rent. The housing authority covers the rest of the monthly amount, up to what’s considered a “fair market rent”—currently $1,854 for a one-bedroom in Oakland

Tenants are selected for vouchers through the county’s coordinated entry system, which matches residents to shelter and housing programs (call 211 to connect with the system). Landlords who want to rent to a voucher-holder can advertise through the Oakland Housing Authority or simply accept a rental applicant who has a voucher, then follow the steps required by the program.

John Talbert, a 62-year-old veteran, said he used his voucher to move into the Oakland Station Senior affordable complex on 105th Avenue a couple months ago.

“This is the worst time to be homeless,” said Talbert at Monday’s event. “You need to be inside a home, where you’re safe from the pandemic at least. It’s a serial killer out on the loose.” 

As he spoke, a torrential rain came down outside on Webster Street, leaving massive puddles and soaking anyone who stood on the street for even a moment. 

“What better day than today to think about how horrible it must feel to not have that sense of security,” said Mayor Libby Schaaf. 

Vouchers “give tenants the dignity of choosing their own place,” she said at the event. But their options are often few and far between.

The technical requirements for landlords renting to voucher-holders and the societal “stigma about poor people” together dissuade some property owners from participating in the program, Hasan said. 

The Oakland Housing Authority offers services and incentives to landlords wary of the program’s regulations, she said. The authority is currently offering a $1,100 bonus to landlords who sign up by the end of 2021, and there are $2,200 no-interest loans available for those who need to make repairs in the unit before it’s eligible to be rented. The housing authority will also pay its portion of the rent for two months after a tenant moves out, if the owner re-rents to another voucher holder. 

“From our personal experience, there’s nothing wrong with renting to a Section 8 tenant—they’re very responsible,” said Bryant Johnson, whose family owns many rental units in Oakland, at Monday’s event. “Don’t feel scared,” he told other landlords.

Property owners can also expect prompt and consistent payments from the housing authority, said Hasan, a boon to landlords who may otherwise rent to tenants who fall behind or pay late. However, they can only charge up to the federally determined “fair market” rates, which in some cases can be a few hundred dollars less than they’d be able to receive through the private market. 

Oakland already has a law prohibiting discrimination against voucher-holders. While the overall effects and enforcement of the law is not clear, there are indications that the most blatant violations have subsided: while apartment listings used to be dominated by ads declaring “no Section 8,” those listings are now overshadowed by ads saying they welcome voucher-holders. However, in practice, landlords can still choose to rent to a conventional applicant over one who has a voucher.

At another recent event, Schaaf critiqued the structure of the federal Housing Choice Voucher program, saying it should be an “entitlement”—meaning everyone making below a certain income level should qualify for a voucher, similar to the way food stamps work, instead of the current structure where the federal government releases a very limited supply of vouchers to local jurisdictions.

Even so, the mayor said she encouraged Vice President Kamala Harris at a recent meeting to release more vouchers through the proposed Build Back Better Plan.

“There are potentially more coming,” she said. “Please consider making your unit available.”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.