Discrimination in Public Housing


Public housing is a program run by the federal government through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Though funded primarily by HUD, public housing programs are owned, managed, and operated directly by local housing authorities. Tenants in San Francisco public housing deal with the San Francisco Housing Authority for various reasons such as writing checks or asking for repairs. In Oakland, tenants deal with the Oakland Housing Authority; in Alameda, tenants work with the Alameda Housing Authority, and so on.1 Similar local housing authorities serving the needs of public housing tenants can be found in other jurisdictions as well.

Public housing is limited to low-income families and individuals. Housing authorities determine eligibility based on annual gross income, whether applicants qualify as elderly, a person with a disability, or as a family, and U.S. citizenship or eligible immigration status. If an applicant is eligible, the housing authority will check references to make sure the applicants will be good tenants.2

Similar to standard landlord-tenant relations outlined above, public housing is regulated both by federal and state law. For transgender tenants, for whom state law in California is more favorable than federal law, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the Unruh Civil Rights Act should be followed. All other applicable California codes, regulations of specific municipalities and federal law all apply as well. Tenants have the same protections against discrimination in public housing as they do in privately owned buildings.3

Section 8, or the Housing Choice Voucher Program, is a federal housing program that provides housing assistance to low-income renters and homeowners. A type of public housing, this assistance comes in the form of rental subsidies for private units, limiting the monthly rent payment of the assistance recipient. Rent is determined by an applicant's income. The voucher will pay anything above 30% of the tenant’s adjusted monthly income directly to the tenant’s landlord, up to an established limit.4 Landlords may refuse to accept Section 8 vouchers5, but they may not do so with an intent to discriminate against individuals based on a protected characteristic such as sex. Information about the Housing Choice Voucher Program can be found at http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/public_indian_housing/programs/hcv/about.

Criminal Records

Federal law requires providers of public housing to perform background checks for people who apply to public housing. However, before a public housing authority takes any adverse action against an applicant based on the results of a criminal background check, applicants must be given an opportunity to dispute the accuracy of their criminal records.6


Tenants must be given “good cause” for eviction in public housing. This means that there are only very specific reasons why a tenant can be evicted, including serious or repeated violation of material terms of the lease, nonpayment of rent, criminal activity or alcohol abuse, violating a condition of parole, or other good legal cause.7 In California, being transgender is not permissible grounds for eviction.

In San Francisco, if a tenant receives a “notice of adverse action,” “notice of lease termination,” or “notice to vacate” from the San Francisco Housing Authority, he or she has the right to request a grievance hearing. The notice should inform the tenant of this right and the timeline and process for requesting the hearing. The tenant must initially request an “informal settlement” with the property manager. If the decision is not favorable, the tenant may then request a formal hearing.8 An exception exists in regard to evictions relating to health and safety hazards and criminal activity. In such cases, the tenant is not granted the right to a grievance hearing.9 Hearing decisions and/or failure to request or attend hearings do not impact a tenant's right to sue in court at a later date. Eviction procedures from public housing may vary slightly depending on the jurisdiction. Check with the appropriate authority regarding eviction from public housing in other areas.

Recourse for Denial of Public Housing

According to federal law, an applicant has the right to challenge the Housing Authority's decision to not admit the applicant into public housing.10 When an applicant is denied admission to public housing, the Housing Authority must provide notification in writing and explain the reasons for the denial. If the applicant is verbally told of a denial, that person should not assume that this is true, and should always ask for the denial in writing. This way, the person will know whether the reason is legal, and whether there are grounds for an appeal. The written notice should state the reason for the denial and that the applicant has the right to request an informal hearing to challenge the decision within ten days.11

  1. Cal. Health & Safe. Code, § 34240. 

  2. HUD's Public Housing Program, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, http://www.hud.gov/renting/phprog.cfm, Last visited May 27, 2014. 

  3. See Banks v. Housing Authority of City and County of San Francisco, 120 Cal. App. 2d 1 (1953), (Holding that local housing authorities may not practice racial discrimination in public housing under the 14th Amendment). 

  4. 24 C.F.R., § 888.113. 

  5. See Sabi v. Sterling, 183 Cal. App. 4th 916, 942 (2010). 

  6. 42 U.S.C. § 1437. 

  7. Housing Choice Voucher Administrative Plan, San Francisco Housing Authority, Chapter 1, § 16.0(A)(1), http://www.sfha.org/SFHA_Admin_Plan_2011.pdf, Last visited May 27, 2014. 

  8. 24 C.F.R., § 966. 

  9. 24 C.F.R., § 966.51. 

  10. 24 C.F.R., § 960.205. 

  11. Id.