Renters’ disability tax

Even with money in the bank, a discriminatory rental income policy is forcing this writer into homelessness

Amy Yannello is a former SN&R staff writer and contributor to other publications, like the San Francisco Chronicle. She has lived in Sacramento for 24 years.

Mine is the new face of homelessness in Sacramento County.

I’m 55, white, college-educated and a newspaper reporter by trade (going on 30 years). And I’m currently living out of a motel room with my cat.

Thanks to four brain lesions, co-occuring seizures and chronic fibromyalgia, I’m also counted among the permanently disabled and receive monthly social security disability benefits. As I’ve found with countless properties that pop up on, and, people with disabilities need not apply.

Oh, they don’t come out and say that, of course. (That would be illegal.) Instead, corporate property managers have figured a way to weed out the disabled by employing this little requirement: Applicants must show that they make three times the rent in monthly income or they will be rejected.

It doesn’t matter if you have money in the bank. It doesn’t matter if you offer three months’ rent upfront. It doesn’t even matter that you have legal documents showing proof of a sizable inheritance. No alternative form of financing is strong enough to engender a workaround of this discriminatory policy.

I should know; I’ve tried all three.

There are some still willing to rent to the disabled and disenfranchised. I met one through a Craigslist ad and looked at the apartment using the keys in a lockbox. The apartment was nothing to write home about, but it appeared clean and I was exhausted from all the rejections. To get in—with no “income requirement” and no criminal background check (he seemed to think this was a big plus)—he required the first month’s rent plus two deposits, all told: $3,885.

My first night there, I discovered the place was crawling with roaches.

The guy refunded my money and let me break the lease without penalty.

Sacramento State University recently estimated 3,665 people are homeless in Sacramento County. According to Brandi Bluel of Resources for Independent Living, who works to find affordable housing for persons with disabilities, another 3,000 or so people are couch-surfing with family or friends, or staying in motels week-to-week. I joined their ranks June 11 when the roommate I’d been sharing a house with for two months turned violent.

Catastrophic illness, disease and disability can strike anyone, of any age, in any socioeconomic group—as can domestic violence—leaving everyone vulnerable to the situation I find myself in today.

Sacramentans are particularly vulnerable. According to Jim Lofgren, executive director of the Rental Housing Association, which represents the interests of landlords and property managers, Sacramento has the second-highest occupancy rate in the nation, yet is “dead last” in housing construction.

“For a county our size, we’re supposed to be at 10,000 affordable housing units per year and that hasn’t happened in quite some time,” Lofgren said. “I’d like to know: If there were a [Hurricane] Katrina, or an earthquake, how quickly would we build emergency housing in a crisis? Well, we’re in a crisis now, and it’s time everyone stopped acting like we weren’t.”

The “fix” for this is threefold, says John Foley, Lofgren’s counterpart at Sacramento Self-Help Housing, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting those at risk of homelessness obtain housing. First, build additional housing. Second, monthly disability benefits must be increased to reflect the rising cost in rent. Lastly, he encourages the county to follow through with a pilot project that would create a monetary fund for landlords renting to low-income residents. In exchange for waiving the hefty rental income requirement, landlords would be able to recoup any losses they incur should renters fail to pay their rent.

“It would give them some assurance,” said Foley, who called the rental income requirement “mean-spirited” and a way to “screen out low-income applicants.”

If we believe that decent, livable shelter at all income brackets is a right and not a privilege, then it’s time to undo this Gordian knot that is strangling so many across the nation.