Subsidized Tenants Face The Not-For-Rent Sign

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Half a year after City Council made it illegal for many city landlords to refuse tenants with Section 8 vouchers and other government subsidies, discrimination by income is still blatant and common, according to a new report by a city housing group.

And the New York City Commission on Human Rights (CHR), which enforces the law barring such “source of income” discrimination, has seen similar problems. Commission staffers posing as renters have encountered landlords who tell them out-and-out that they won’t accept Section 8 housing subsidies, according to CHR’s deputy commissioner.

In its report, the Fair Housing Justice Center – a three-year-old legal project of HELP USA, a local nonprofit provider of housing and social services to the homeless – tracked rental ads on local listings at the website craigslist and found numerous advertisements excluding prospective tenants with government income. The language in the ads was so obvious that Center staffers searched using phrases such as “no government programs” and “no Section 8.”

The ads tracked by the Center were posted by real estate brokers and companies. Researchers found more than 360 ads with language excluding Section 8 and other subsidies posted on during July.

However, the human rights commission says brokers aren’t flouting the new law as often as the study claims. “The report’s a little exaggerated,” said Cliff Mulqueen, deputy commissioner and general counsel at CHR. “There aren’t that many people who are violating the law.”

He says not all of the apartments the Center found on craigslist with anti-subsidy language actually are covered by the new law. If an owner has one or more buildings, but each with five or fewer apartments, he is allowed to reject subsidized tenants.

But according to the Center’s interpretation, brokers for such owners can’t use discriminatory language in their ads, even if owners can. Mulqueen disagrees, saying brokers for the smaller buildings also are exempted. The state Division of Licensing Services couldn’t be reached immediately for comment on its interpretation of the law for brokers.

Even without the broker-versus-owner distinction, there have been numerous violations, by CHR’s own numbers. The commission has looked into nearly 80 cases of income bias since the law’s passage in March. Of those, the commission’s staff resolved 15 by calling the person or company in violation. Of the roughly 60 remaining cases, just over 30 cases are open, with one pending trial. The others were closed after settlements, “administrative” closures or other actions.

Turning away tenants because of their source of income, such as Section 8 vouchers, was banned by City Council earlier this year, when the Council amended the city’s Human Rights Law. It now disallows discrimination based on “lawful source of income,” including Social Security or local, state or federal public assistance, such as Section 8 vouchers. The law’s passage came after a political disagreement between Mayor Bloomberg and City Council. Though backed by General Welfare Committee Chairman Bill de Blasio and many other councilmembers over its two-year journey into law, Bloomberg vetoed the legislation in February because he objected to private landlords being required to participate in government programs. But Council voted to override in late March.

The Center’s report urges the government agencies to implement more of a top-down policy rather than reacting to alleged violations on a case-by-case basis. It urges government agencies to “repair the harm caused by the discriminatory conduct, and ensure future compliance.” One example of such “repair” was provided by a case in Buffalo this year, in which discrimination was remedied through proactive outreach to Section 8 recipients and reserving additional units for them.

The group also is recommending the human rights commission should finance, develop and implement “testing investigations.” But CHR already is conducting tests of owners, by sending out one staffer at a time, or having one staffer contact an owner, according to Mulqueen. He says his office also uses craigslist to find violations.

The Center says it would be effective for the Commission to do its own testing and to contract with fair housing groups. This way, the Commission is “not just waiting for complaints,” says Fair Housing Justice Center executive director Diane Houk.

In fact, CHR’s Mulqueen says that “the majority of people, of our cases, have come from people walking through the door,” or contacting CHR.

Houk – echoed by attorney Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society – also says the commission’s practice of resolving some violations by intervening and not bothering with a written complaint report is problematic. “You can’t see trends,” says Goldiner, a supervising attorney in the law reform unit.

Goldiner’s caseload also bears some evidence of the high number of violations of the “source of income” provision. She currently has three separate cases, each on behalf of about 30 tenants, involving the new law. A number of landlord attorneys are fighting “tooth and nail” against it, she said.

The Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), a lobbying group with about 25,000 property owners and managers in its membership, says a lack of education among owners and their reps is the root of the problem. Mitchell Posilkin, the RSA’s general counsel, says “there are many owners that don’t know that the law has changed.”

Posilkin says that “obviously, we do not condone people violating the law.” RSA opposed the legislation earlier this year, saying owners shouldn’t be forced to take part in government programs. “If they don’t want to accept Section 8…we believe that those reasons are well-founded,” Posilkin said of the owners. One complaint landlords have voiced in the past is that payment from government sources can be slow and undependable.

The human rights commission anticipates that real-estate companies will soon become better acquainted with the law, deputy commissioner Mulqueen says. Ironically, though, that won’t necessarily mean an easier renting process for low-income tenants. “That will make the enforcement harder, because people will be more careful about what they say,” he said.

– Rachel Nielsen