City Brings First Lawsuit Under Source of Income Discrimination Ban

On June 20, the city filed its first two cases charging landlords and real-estate brokers with violating the 2008 law which makes it illegal to refuse to rent to a tenant based on their receiving public assistance such as Section 8 rent-subsidy vouchers. 

The suits were brought against a property manager on Staten Island who repeatedly told city testers who called to enquire about available apartments that “no vouchers are being accepted,” and a broker in the Bronx whose Website’s advertisements repeatedly stated “No vouchers.” The city is seeking a court order for the two to end such practices and comply with the law, as well as civil penalties. 

The lawsuit marks a more aggressive approach. “To any landlord that refuses to rent to New Yorkers receiving public assistance to pay their rent: consider yourselves on notice,” declared welfare commissioner Steve Banks in a statement released by the city. “We are prepared to intervene and prosecute.” As head of the Legal Aid Society before he joined the de Blasio administration, Banks oversaw lawsuits against every mayor from Edward Koch to Michael Bloomberg over the city’s lack of coherent and humane homeless policies. 

Source-of-income discrimination was banned by a 2008 amendment to the city’s Human Rights Law, sponsored by then-City Councilmember Bill de Blasio. It protects people trying to rent apartments who receive Section 8 or the numerous other subsidy programs implemented by de Blasio to keep people out of shelters or get them out once they are in. More than 87,000 children and adults have used these programs to get permanent housing since 2014, but until recently the city’s Human Rights Commission did not actively enforce the antidiscrimination law. Violations remain rampant, despite educational efforts by the city and community-based legal services organizations. 

“Despite the law’s clear mandate, source-of-income discrimination remains a chronic problem for low- and middle-income New Yorkers who rely on subsidies to pay the monthly rent,” says Robert Desir, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Law Reform Unit who has litigated source-of-income discrimination cases. “Offending landlords have employed a variety of tactics in hopes of escaping detection. While the city has increased enforcement efforts, we urge quicker decisions and a more streamlined process for resolving these cases, since apartments do not remain vacant for long in this overheated market, and these missed opportunities often cause families to languish in shelters at great expense to the city.” 

Many landlords prefer not to rent from people coming out of shelters, reflecting a common prejudice. Most families in shelters work, but their wages are too low to afford New York’s increasingly unaffordable rents—which is precisely why the subsidies are needed. 

While enhanced enforcement will go a long way to end discrimination against public-assistance recipients, advocates say the law itself also needs to be strengthened, because it applies only in buildings with six or more units, leaving out tens of thousands of apartments in smaller buildings.