A Homeless Student’s Search Sheds Light on L.A. Housing Challenges

When I first met Jacqueline Benitez, a homeless community college student, she was thrilled to learn that she had just been approved for a housing voucher, commonly known as Section 8.

It was August, and she was living in a housing development exclusively for homeless students who attended Cerritos College in Norwalk. But Benitez, 21, planned to transfer to a university, which would make her ineligible for the townhouse she shared with three roommates.

Jovenes, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles, was able to give Benitez one of its housing vouchers earmarked for young adults experiencing homelessness.

It was an enormous advantage, especially since Los Angeles County’s housing authority has about 33,000 families or individuals on its wait list and has not taken additional applicants since 2009. And it meant that Benitez, who worked part time at a preschool, could get a subsidy for an apartment, leaving her to pay no more than 40 percent of her monthly adjusted income on rent.

What happened next was maddening. Outdated listings, emails and voice mail messages that were never returned. Rental prices that suddenly increased after an inquiry. Apartments in disrepair that charged $2,000 a month. And the most egregious: Landlords made it clear that they did not want to rent to someone with a housing voucher.

Benitez’s journey became the focus of an article I wrote last month that revealed what someone with a voucher can encounter despite a state law that makes it illegal to discriminate against renters based on their source of income.

“I knew it was going to be difficult, I was just naïve,” she told me seven weeks into her search. “Everything is so automated. If I was actually able to talk to someone and share my story and let them meet me, I feel like that would make a difference.”

Landlords often associate Section 8 voucher holders with crime or consider them to be unreliable tenants. And while prospective tenants can report discrimination to the state civil rights department or request assistance from a legal services program, many just move on to the next listing, anxious about the expiration date on their voucher, or eventually give up.

The success rate for Los Angeles County’s housing authority from April 2021 to December 2022 was 44.7 percent of vouchers issued, according to a spokeswoman for the agency.

As she searched, Benitez was juggling finals and awaiting a reunion with her mother, who was deported to England six years earlier for drug possession. The two had not seen each other in person since then.

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At one point Benitez was so overwhelmed by the stress of her housing that she wondered whether she might need to live at the hotel where her uncle stayed. She had help from a case manager through Jovenes and had also been assigned one of the housing authority’s program specialists, but was still often confused.

Following Benitez’s experience revealed how the housing market in Los Angeles County can feel nearly impossible to navigate, even with support. Particularly for a young woman unfamiliar with many of the bureaucratic roadblocks. When a management company ran Benitez’s credit, it came back blank. She had never owned a credit card for fear of going into debt like her mother, who had been arrested for petty theft.

Ultimately Benitez reached out to more than 300 places. Her journey ended on a hopeful note, but she wondered how anyone without her same advantages could ever be as lucky.

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The rest of the news

Pandemic: Gov. Gavin Newsom rescinded the state’s Covid-19 state of emergency on Tuesday, almost three years after it began, The Los Angeles Times reports.

Labor secretary: President Biden is nominating Julie Su, the current deputy and former California official, as his next labor secretary, The Associated Press reports.

Bribery: A former F.B.I. agent in California was sentenced to six years in federal prison for accepting at least $150,000 in gifts and cash bribes to provide confidential information to a man with organized crime ties, The Associated Press reports.


Settlement: Los Angeles County agreed to pay Vanessa Bryant and her family nearly $30 million to settle litigation over the sharing of graphic photos from the helicopter crash that killed Bryant’s husband, Kobe Bryant, and one of their daughters, Gianna.

Sweater weather: Los Angeles is heading toward its longest cold spell in nearly two decades, The Los Angeles Times reports.

Housing disparities: A study of survey data found that Black people in Los Angeles were given lower priority than white people in housing subsidy programs, The Los Angeles Times reports.

Lack of transparency: A newly released state audit of Orange County’s fledgling clean-power agency found a lack of transparency in marketing and financial services contracts, LAist reports.

Snowed in: San Bernardino County residents have been under a state of emergency since Monday evening, as road closures caused by winter storms have left some people in mountain communities stranded, The LAist reports.


Lawsuits: A Fresno State student and an employee have filed separate civil lawsuits against Fresno State, claiming that the university mishandled their reports of sexual assault and harassment, USA Today reports.


Snow day: Blizzard conditions forced the closure of highways, schools and ski resorts on Tuesday, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Housing laws: Newsom said he would work to reform a landmark state environmental law that he said had been weaponized by wealthy homeowners to block housing for students at U.C. Berkeley, The Associated Press reports.

Homeless program: As San Francisco works to start its new program for mentally ill homeless people, some are skeptical it will have a big impact on tragedies unfolding on the streets, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

What we’re eating

Mushroom and potato paprikash.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Michael Lepere, who lives in Santa Barbara:

“Being a lifelong Californian, it’s too difficult to choose a favorite spot. However, one that holds a top spot for me would be Big Sur.

On the edge of the continent. Stunning sunrises to amazing sunsets. Truly beautiful any time of year. Truly peaceful any time of year. Worth the drive up or down Highway 1.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Tell us

Recent snowstorms created winter wonderlands in unexpected places across our state. Email us at [email protected] with your best pictures and stories.

And before you go, some good news

Saratoga High School’s drama program is heading to Scotland to perform at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the summer of 2024.

“Attending our performing arts theatrical productions has been a highlight of my time here,” Superintendent Bill W. Sanderson told The Mercury News. “Our student actors and staff directors and teachers are incredibly talented, and I’m thrilled that they will be able to highlight their talent at such a well-known and respected festival.”

The students will be part of the American High School Theater Festival, which is part of the larger festival.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Soumya Karlamangla, Briana Scalia and Isabella Grullón Paz contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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