Advocates say the limited enforcement undermines the effectiveness of the city’s own rental assistance vouchers, putting New Yorkers at risk of homelessness or extending the amount of time they remain in shelters even if they have the means to pay.

NYC Commission on Human Rights

A poster from the NYC Commission on Human Rights, aimed at curbing housing discrimination.

And then there were none.

After years of employee departures and unfilled vacancies, the city enforcement unit tasked with cracking down on New York’s most common form of housing discrimination does not have a single staff member left, City Limits has learned.

The last overwhelmed attorney working in the New York City Human Rights Commission’s (CCHR) Source of Income (SOI) Unit resigned on April 1 and has not been replaced. The SOI unit fields complaints, intervenes and at times files lawsuits on behalf of would-be renters who say they were denied an apartment because they have a government subsidy, like a federal Section 8 or local CityFHEPS voucher, that helps cover the rent.

The pervasive practice—spelled out in online apartment listings, recorded phone calls with brokers and even a website advising landlords to reject voucher holders—constitutes the most frequent form of illegal housing bias in the city, according to annual CCHR reports.

Yet, as City Limits has previously reported, the SOI unit shrank from six staffers three years ago, to three in 2021 to just one last month, despite calls to beef up enforcement and a spending plan that would have allowed the agency to add at least 10 attorneys and staffers to the unit this year. CCHR did not end up hiring a single new SOI enforcement staffer and has instead moved to slash unfilled vacancies that could have bolstered the unit as part of Mayor Eric Adams’ cost-cutting mandate.

“It is truly heartbreaking to see such a powerful unit dissolve,” said Steph Rudolph, a former head of the SOI Unit who left the agency in 2020 and now works at the organization JustFix.

Rudolph, who uses the pronouns they and them, said the city is failing to uphold its human rights law, which empowers CCHR to crack down on landlords, property managers and brokers who discriminate against renters with housing subsidies.

“The city’s failure to fund CCHR and, in addition, CCHR’s own failure to internally support the SOI unit actively harms the most under-resourced New Yorkers—those from historically oppressed communities, those with disabilities and those most in need of stable housing,” they said.

Other housing rights advocates say the limited enforcement undermines the effectiveness of the city’s own rental assistance vouchers, putting New Yorkers at risk of homelessness or extending the amount of time they remain in shelters even if they have the means to pay.

“If the mayor really wants to address homelessness like he claims he does, his administration needs to fund the Human Rights Commissions’ SOI unit to effectively do its work,” said Amy Blumsack, whose organization Neighbors Together helps tenants use their vouchers and fight discrimination.

The City Council voted last year to increase the value of the CityFHEPS subsidies to fair market rent to allow more people to use them to afford an apartment, but just a fraction of CityFHEPS voucher recipients manage to actually find a place. Voucher holders encounter onerous administrative obstacles, further complicated by brokers and building managers who refuse to rent to them—and who face little accountability from the city, Blumsack said.

“Without adequate funding and staffing, it diminishes the effectiveness of the CityFHEPS voucher and undermines the intent of raising the payment standard last year and keeps people in homelessness longer than necessary,” Blumsack added.

Neighbors Together and the organization UnlockNYC have urged the city to increase spending on CCHR’s SOI Unit by at least $1 million and to hire more staff members to tackle voucher discrimination. Brokers who break the law have adapted to avoid enforcement by removing explicit anti-subsidy language from apartment listings and instead “ghosting” voucher holders—declining to return their calls when they learn they have a subsidy—or imposing additional restrictions, like minimum credit requirements or insisting tenants earn 40 times the monthly rent, though cost is covered by the government.

Though no one is currently working in the SOI unit, CCHR Deputy Commissioner JoAnn Kamuf Ward said the agency will continue to intervene in instances of voucher discrimination. Other agency attorneys and staff have taken on some SOI cases as the main unit shrunk, CCHR told City Limits last month.

“The Commission on Human Rights is committed to addressing Source of Income discrimination and to fulfilling our agency’s mandate,” Kamuf Ward said. “Our team will continue to respond to allegations of discrimination in this area and to proactively root out of Source of Income discrimination as we work to uphold the human rights of New Yorkers.”

CCHR did not respond to questions about their plan to replace the staff members who have left.

In recent years, CCHR has prioritized what it terms “pre-complaint intervention,” with SOI unit staffers immediately contacting landlords, brokers or management companies accused of SOI discrimination and reminding them that voucher bias violates city law. The agency threatens to take further action unless the tenant is offered a lease.

That sort of rapid response is essential for combating discrimination in an overheated rental market where apartments are snatched up quickly, say city officials and housing advocates. For many voucher recipients, pressure to find a home mounts as time goes by: a person who waits years for a Section 8 voucher could end up losing it if they do not use it.

CCHR provided statistics showing the agency filed more complaints on behalf of tenants in the current fiscal year than in either of the past two. The SOI unit filed 29 complaints between July 2021 and March of this year, compared to 28 in the 2021 fiscal year and 27 in fiscal year 2020. CCHR has won fewer damages and penalties from property owners so far this year, but said it has settled with landlords to set aside more units for tenants with housing vouchers.

New York City’s Department of Social Services (DSS) also operates its own shrinking SOI enforcement unit, known as the Fair Housing Litigation Unit, with six staff members prioritizing pre-complaint intervention. The agency occasionally files discrimination complaints in civil court on behalf of the city, but only CCHR can sue on behalf of individuals facing discrimination. During budget negotiations last year, money to hire reinforcements in the Fair Housing Litigation Unit was reallocated to CCHR, DSS said.

In the absence of more aggressive enforcement by the city, nonprofit organizations, like the Housing Rights Initiative (HRI) and the Fair Housing Justice Center, have stepped in. Both organizations have sued some of New York City’s largest real estate players, like the LeFrak Organization, Corcoran Group and Compass, for alleged bias against people with rent subsidies.

It’s not hard to find voucher recipients who have encountered SOI discrimination, or property owners who engage in the practice.

Williamsbridge resident Dwayne Jones, who has a CityFHEPS voucher, said he is facing eviction from his current home, but is unable to find a landlord or broker willing to return his calls or emails when they learn he has a subsidy. He told City Limits last month that he fears he may have no other choice but to enter the shelter system.

Jessica Valencia, a spokesperson for UnlockNYC, said she faced discrimination more than 50 times while searching for an apartment with a state FHEPS voucher in 2019. Back then, she was getting evicted from a Dyker Heights apartment and looking for a new place nearby.

She said she frequently called 311 to file a complaint but never received a response from the city until she reached out to UnlockNYC for assistance. The organization helped her connect with CCHR, which intervened on her behalf after a broker attempted to steer her and her family away 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 told City Limits last month. “That shows the power they have for enforcement.”

But UnlockNYC product designer Ashley Eberhart said the city’s understaffed enforcement units mean more tenants seeking help against discrimination may get ghosted again—this time by the agency that is supposed to hold property owners and brokers accountable.

“After being denied, hung up on, or ignored by hundreds of brokers, the last thing a renter with a voucher needs is to call 311, leave a voicemail asking for help, and never get an answer,” Eberhart said. “As CCHR’s Source of Income Unit shrinks, more New Yorkers are left in limbo in a system that gives them a voucher, but no way to use it.”