J. Murphy

Reginald Brown addresses a rally at City Hall last week asserting that the city had failed to fund adequate enforcement of a 2008 human rights law.

While many people stand defenseless against New York City’s rising housing costs, a significant number of local renters are armed with a government voucher—a promise by the feds or the city to pay the difference between fair rent on an apartment and what a tenant can afford. All those voucher holders have to do is find an apartment to use it on.

That can be harder than it sounds.

Jut ask Reginald Brown. He said at a City Hall rally last Friday that he had held a voucher from the city’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration for six years, 10 months and 23 days – and yet was still living in a homeless shelter. What he hears from landlords, he says, is that he can’t rent because his income isn’t high enough.

“How could my income not be high enough when I have a voucher?” he wondered.

Naila, a domestic violence survivor, has struggled for a year to get housing even though she has a voucher. “The same thing happens every time” she inquires about an apartment, she says. “I know once I mention the word ‘voucher,’ stop replying.” She often pays a $200 fee for her application, only to see it go nowhere. “Basically, the city gives you a piece of paper that says ‘We will pay your rent – if you are lucky enough to find an apartment.'”

Both Naila and Brown blame their difficulties on “source of income” discrimination, which is when a landlord rebuffs a potential tenant because of their method for paying the rent.

In 2008, over the objection of Mayor Bloomberg, the City Council passed a law adding income source to race, gender, disability status and the other characteristics protected under New York’s human rights law, which is primarily enforced by the Commission on Human Rights.

Since then, source-of-income (SOI) discrimination has consistently ranked as the top form of housing discrimination pursued by CCHR, with 129 cases in 2016, 85 in 2017 and 94 last year. The issue has taken on more urgency under Mayor de Blasio because of the homelessness crisis—City Hall created several new voucher programs to get people out of shelters and into permanent housing, but there have been problems getting landlords to accept those forms of payment.

Part of the problem, critics say, is lax enforcement of the 2008 law. “The city government is not doing enough to prevent discrimination,” Manhattan Assemblyman Harvey Epstein told the Friday rally, which promoted a demand to de Blasio to double the budget for the unit of CCHR lawyers who handle source-of-income claims.

“This letter says, ‘Show us the damn money,'” said Manhattan Councilmember Keith Powers as he held a message from several Councilmembers to the mayor asking for heftier staffing. “We know that doubling the unit will double the output.”

Advocates contend that only five staffers—just one of them a lawyer—handle SOI cases at the commission. But a commission spokeswoman insists there are six staffers, three of them attorneys.

CCHR says the unit, formed in 2017, not only files court cases but has also intervened in real time to help 30 tenants who were experiencing voucher problems get apartments. The unit also sends investigators out to do tests of whether landlords are complying with the law: Last year, it did 160 such tests.

Anyone who believes they have been a victim of source of income or housing discrimination can contact CCHR at 718-722-3131.

“The NYC Commission on Human Rights is proud to have a robust Source of Income unit housed within the Law Enforcement Bureau,” the spokeswoman says. “As the body responsible for enforcing the city’s Human Rights Law, the Commission can order uncapped damages, civil penalties, and education and training for anyone who violates housing protections.”

It is illegal for landlords or brokers in the city to reject current or prospective tenants who use any form of public assistance to pay their rents, including but not limited to Section 8, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA), Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (FHEPS) and City Family Eviction Prevention Supplement Program (CITYFEPS). Landlords also can’t advertise in such a way that suggests they don’t accept all legal forms of payment.

A spokeswoman for the mayor told City Limits: “We are fighting to ensure every New Yorker can live in a safe, affordable home,” noting the unit’s testing and emergency intervention powers “[enable] the city to take immediate action for clients experiencing unlawful barriers to housing while also conducting larger-scale investigations to hold bad landlords accountable.”

The Department of Social Services, which oversees the Department of Homeless Services, also has an SOI enforcement unit. It was launched in 2017 as pat of the mayor’s Turning the Tide strategy for dealing with homelessness. The office filed its first two court cases last year.

Both CCHR and DSS say they have worked hard to make renters aware of their right to use any legal source of income to pay rent. The commission held nearly 300 workshops this year to train housing providers and community groups and ran an ad campaign in print and multimedia. For its part, DSS says it produced a new renters’ guide that discusses SOI rights and trained 3,000 city workers about source-of-income discrimination.

But advocates say awareness still lags. Federal housing offers no protections against source-of-income discrimination, and the state only adopted a law banning SOI discrimination this past April. “You need to fund the unit. You need to educate people, so that when they get a voucher, they know what their rights are,” Epstein said.

Landlord groups contend the extent of source-of-income discrimination is overstated, and argue that the variety of vouchers creates challenges, especially when relatively small voucher programs are operated with limited bureaucratic support. There is also a hangover from the Advantage program, a voucher program for homeless families that the Bloomberg administration launched and then suddenly ended, leaving both tenants and landlords in the lurch.

Housing advocates say bureaucratic snags are not what explains most cases of source-of-income discrimination. “Discrimination based on a vouchers is often a proxy for discrimination by race or disability or other things,” said Armen Merjian, a senior staff attorney at Housing Works. “It’s disgusting.” He suspects that, in gentrifying neighborhoods, landlords are often keen on upgrading a building’s image—and the presence of poor and disabled people is out of step with that.

Merjian argues that what will make a real difference to the city’s SOI enforcement is not an additional lawyer or two but a significantly more robust legal staff. Large, real-estate companies often have many lawyers at their disposal—including high-profile legal talent, like former Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro of Bridgegate fame, who represented the LeFrak Organization when Housing Works sued it for discrimination. “We need a fleet to battle the fleet,” Merjian says

The de Blasio administration has simplified the voucher landscape by combining several separate voucher programs into one. While source-of-income discrimination remains a problem, the de Blasio voucher programs have moved 115,000 people out of shelter—an accomplishment that has been overshadowed by the large shelter census and more visible street-homeless population.

The administration says only 1.5 percent of families with children and 6.9 percent of single adults return to shelter after receiving subsidized housing.

12 thoughts on “Call for City to Lawyer-Up Against Landlords Who Shun Tenants With Vouchers

  1. Section 8 is a VOLUNTARY government program that landords can CHOOSE to participate in IF they want to. Many do, and many don’t. This has always been the way it is since Section 8 was developed in 1974. You cannot force a private citizen to particiapte in a voluntary government program, its unconstitutional. Already there have been two court cases, one in Texas and one in Pennsylvania that went to the states supreme courts. Both of these income discrimination laws were found unconstitional and the laws had to be rescinded. There are a dozen other cases in as many states making their way through the courts. At some point one will go to SCOTUS where it will certainly be found unconstitional and all of these laws will have to be recsinded. A lot of lawyers are going to make millions on these cases and not one unit of afford able housing will be created, This is foolish political theater that is going to cost taxpayers millions and not solve the problem.

    • Great points. Many people don’t realize the program has its own lease. So basically they want to force people to sign a lease with terms dictated by HUD and its local agent. HUd, the worst slumlord in American history.

      • That argument would be slightly more persuasive if the discrimination complaints didn’t also include several other varieties of vouchers not involving HUD at all.

        • I am looking be for a 4-5bedrooms place in NYC I have CITYFHEPS. Not go nowhere. I have large family. Plus I am a working Mother. Can somebody please help me .

  2. It’s not discrimination for a landlord to avoid a badly designed government program. Also a voucher isn’t income.

    Ideologues contrived the term “source of income discrimination” to avoid changing their badly run program. Instead they will force landlords to participate.

    • Can you do something to help the citizens who are caught in the trap? The government messed up, ok great, that is a true and certified fact—-but then how can we help the families and individuals who desperately need housing and are trying to take advantage of the support so that they can become stable?

  3. Good! Something needs to be done. The discrimination is out of control, ever since Gentrification began. Private owners are one thing, but if NYS Law says you must accept voucher tenants if your Apartment building has 6 units or more, you as the owner of that property NEED to adhere to the laws, or get ready for a court battle against the City. Homeless crisis is out of control and only getting worse with all the Discrimination going on in recent years. Do your background checks, Do a proper and complete screening on ALL tenants, then as an Owner you wont have to feel like tenants may destroy your property. Most owners never experienced Section 8 voucher tenants for themselves, many just piggy back off of, & believe what they’ve heard some slumlord on social media say about his/her experience with section 8. Many owners/Landlords don’t even realize there are different types of Voucher Programs, not just one big Voucher program. I think Owners and Landlords should get Educated on how these programs actually, who is operating them (which Housing Agency is it under), the qualifications- Does the tenant have to be employed in order to qualify, because some programs dont. Does rhe voucher program pay upfront, if so- how many years?, All these questions and more should be asked and answered. Youd be surprised at how many Landlords, & Lawyers do not realize theres multiple types of Voucher programs in NY. The Section 8 program is one type of voucher, that has different branches to it. My landlords Lawyer got the whole case thrown out after 4 months of waisted time in court, I’m missing work and all-because he assumed NYCHA was the correct section 8 program. So its very important that these landlords get Educated out here on these programs if they want to call themselves Landlords. How are you out here owning properties, and dont have a clue how these Housing programs and Agencies really operate. You should already be educated FULLY on the Housing Laws if you own Residential property in NYS. Listening to what some slumlord on social has posted online or in a video could all be some made up nonsense. There are Thousands of voucher holder in NYS. Thousands! And Thousands more waiting for vouchers. And hundreds catching hell trying to find somebody to accept them before the voucher expires. I really hope the city does something about the Expiration dates. 3 or even 6 months at a time just isnt enough anymore with all the Discrimination, and Gentrification going on.

    • Agreed agreed….. landlords do have power and should use it to hold the government accountable so that people can be properly housed in ways they can afford

  4. nobody protects section 8 and the other programs all lose section 8 because the owners reject it. There has to be a punishment for these. because what one spends time and money and is tired that every day you search and search and find and tell you about your economic status. It is sad to be frustrated that they lie and steal the money from the application of an apartment

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