New York City agencies tasked with investigating source of income (SOI) discrimination against renters are being forced to do more with less after hiring freezes, resignations and budget cuts whittled down their already overburdened enforcement units.

Adi Talwar

Apartment buildings in The Bronx.

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Dwayne Jones is getting kicked out of his Williamsbridge apartment by a landlord looking to sell and needs a place to move, fast. He has a housing voucher from the city that will pay the bulk of his rent, but he cannot find a property owner willing to take it.

“I know I have to leave, but I don’t want to go to a shelter,” Jones said.

He said he worries he is running out of time. Management companies are ghosting him when they learn he has a government-funded rental subsidy. Brokers have told him that the owners they know “have nothing for programs,” he said.

Both practices, examples of source of income discrimination, are illegal in New York City. They are also pervasive (There’s even an active website advising property owners to “NEVER accept a tenant with a CityFHEPS voucher”).  But the New York City agencies tasked with cracking down on source of income (SOI) discrimination are being forced to do more with less after hiring freezes, resignations and budget cuts whittled down their already overburdened enforcement units.

Last year’s city budget was supposed to beef up those units, City Limits reported at the time. Instead, they have shrunk.

Six staffers work in the Department of Social Services’ (DSS) Fair Housing Litigation Unit, which takes on source of income discrimination, down from nine last year. The agency initially hoped to hire 10 additional attorneys and investigators to “stamp out this pernicious practice,” then-Commissioner Steve Banks said in June 2021. But during later budget negotiations, the money was reallocated to the Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), to bolster its own Source of Income Unit.

That did not happen either. There is now just one one staffer assigned to CCHR’s SOI Unit—down from three in 2021 and six in past years. Other agency attorneys and investigators also pitch in on SOI cases while they tackle various other forms of discrimination, but CCHR proposed eliminating vacant positions that could have been used to bolster the SOI unit as part of Mayor Eric Adams’ cost-cutting mandate.

Housing rights advocates say the erosion of the SOI enforcement workforce is a major obstacle to addressing New York City’s persistent homelessness and affordable housing crises.

“It’s crazy,” said Housing Rights Initiative Executive Director Aaron Carr, who used two expletives to punctuate his point. “It would still be insufficient in a city with a fraction of New York City’s population, but this is the largest city in the country with among the highest housing costs in the country.”

Carr has frequently urged city and state government to increase its enforcement outfits and crack down on source of income discrimination, which he said erodes the impact of crucial rent subsidies and leaves people in shelters or unstable housing situations. He said his watchdog group is concluding its own six-month source of income discrimination investigation into hundreds of companies after a sweeping probe of major New York City real estate firms culminated in a lawsuit last March.

Councilmember Keith Powers, who sponsored legislation to expand source of income discrimination protections to small properties in 2020, called the current staffing levels “unacceptable.”

“It is critical that we [are] adequately investing in sufficient enforcement against SOI discrimination, and I will be pushing to fully fund those units in the upcoming budget cycle,” he said in a statement.

The two city agencies acknowledge the staffing decreases but counter that they have managed to boost enforcement, get tenants into apartments and change behaviors after threatening legal action. (Some property owners, for their part, have previously expressed frustrations with administrative delays associated with the CityFHEPS program, including payments from the city they say come inconsistently.)

Both CCHR and DSS’s enforcement units prioritize what they term “pre-complaint intervention” and consider litigation a last resort. Under the intervention model, the units’ staffers will contact a landlord, broker or management company accused of SOI discrimination, remind them that voucher bias violates the law and threaten to take further action unless the tenant is offered a lease.

CCHR has filed more complaints on behalf of tenants in the current fiscal year than in either of the past two, according to agency statistics. The SOI unit has filed 29 complaints since July 2021, with three months left in the fiscal year, compared to 28 in the 2021 fiscal year and 27 in fiscal year 2020. CCHR has won fewer damages and penalties from rule-breaking property owners so far this year, but has also settled with landlords to set aside more units for tenants with housing vouchers.

“I’m very proud of the work my agency does and of our staff in the Law Enforcement Bureau,” said CCHR Deputy Commissioner Sapna Raj. “It is frustrating that although the law has been on the books since 2008, SOI discrimination is still so rampant in New York City. That is really frustrating.”

DSS, meanwhile, said the Fair Housing Litigation Unit fields complaints while conducting undercover investigations, known as testing, maintaining a database to track trends and preemptively contacting landlords and brokers to enforce SOI laws.

Last fiscal year, the unit followed up on 909 discrimination cases, or what they term “queries,” including 360 accusing source of income discrimination. Some of the complaints were reported by prospective renters, while others were uncovered by staffers during proactive research, like combing online real estate listings for anti-voucher disclaimers. The agency said 99 of the queries provided sufficient information that allowed enforcement teams to intervene and secure housing for 51 households. That marked a higher number of successful interventions than the previous fiscal year.

Since 2018, DSS’s Fair Housing Litigation Unit has taken investigations a step further. The agency has filed four SOI discrimination lawsuits against landlords and brokers and settled three. In those cases, the defendants—including BruMa Realty, Samson Management, Oxford Realty Group and Atlas RealtyAssociates—have paid fines of $5,000 per violation and opened up a total of 26 units to voucher recipients while pledging to comply with SOI laws as part of strict compliance agreements.

SOI consistently ranks as the most common form of housing bias based on renter complaints, and often stands in as a cover for discrimination based on race, gender identity or other protected classes, advocates warn.

Amy Blumsack, whose organization Neighbors Together helps tenants use their vouchers and fight source of income discrimination, said the staff members in the enforcement units work tirelessly to combat the practice but simply do not have the capacity to keep up with the need for intervention. “There’s an incredible bottle neck and voucher holders are reporting and not hearing back,” Blumsack said. “It’s discouraging them from reporting because why would you report if you’re not hearing back?”

New York City and state last year increased the value of their rental vouchers, CityFHEPs and FHEPS, to allow more homeless and low-income residents to afford an apartment. A new proposed housing subsidy is gaining momentum in Albany. And New York City housing agencies are in the process of issuing nearly 7,800 new Section 8 vouchers provided by the federal government.

But those initiatives will not truly work unless landlords accept them, Blumsack said. Limited enforcement “cuts the vouchers off at the knees,” she said. “What’s the point of having a voucher if there’s no enforcement mechanism?”

Neighbors Together and their partner Unlock NYC have called on the city to increase spending on CCHR’s SOI Unit by at least $1 million and hire more staff members to tackle the pervasive practice. Brokers have adapted to avoid existing enforcement by removing explicit anti-subsidy language from listings and instead “ghosting” voucher holders—declining to return their calls—or imposing additional restrictions, like credit thresholds or insisting prospective tenants earn 40 times the monthly rent, even though cost is covered by the government.

“We need more enforcement because we have seen them getting more sophisticated,” said Unlock NYC’s Ashley Eberhart. “It’s not cut and dry. We need testers.”

Jessica Valencia, UnlockNYC’s spokesperson, knows the problem well. She experienced source of income discrimination more than 50 times while looking to rent an apartment with a state FHEPS voucher in 2019, she said. At the time, she was getting evicted from her Dyker Heights apartment and searching for another place in Southern Brooklyn.

She said she frequently called 311 to file a complaint but never received a response from CCHR until she connected with UnlockNYC. After that, CCHR intervened on her behalf when a broker attempted to steer her and her family from a Borough Park apartment.

“I don’t know what CCHR said to them, but the following day the broker called and offered the unit,” Valencia said. “That shows the power they have for enforcement.”

“We love the work the people are doing,” she added. “We just need more of it.”