‘Follow the Damn Law’: Lawsuit Targets Landlords Illegally Refusing Vouchers

New York State and city human-rights laws prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to someone based on “source of income discrimination,” such as refusing to rent to people who would have part of their rent paid by Section 8 or another subsidy. Housing Rights Initiative, represented by The Legal Aid Society’s law-reform unit together with the firm of Handley Farah & Anderson, alleges that the defendants violated these laws in a “pervasive and egregious” way, based on a year-long investigation. HRI’s testers, posing as would-be tenants, recorded the defendants making statements such as “we don’t do Section 8 vouchers in this building,” “we don’t take vouchers,” and “she wants well-qualified people.”

On March 15, Housing Rights Initiative brought a lawsuit in federal court against 88 landlords who have illegally refused to rent to prospective tenants whose rent would be paid with Housing Choice vouchers, rent subsidies which allow families to escape the shelter system to permanent affordable housing.

The complaint states that the defendants — who include the Corcoran Group upscale realty firm and a Century 21 franchise in Manhattan — are also violating the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, as 82 percent of tenants with Housing Choice vouchers are black or Latino. It explains that landlords’ widespread refusal to accept vouchers is a major factor in perpetuating “racial and socioeconomic segregation in New York City,” by restricting voucher holders to lower-income neighborhoods.

Housing Rights Initiative, founded in 2016 by Aaron Carr, is a nonprofit advocacy group whose mission is “to protect the rights of tenants and preserve affordable housing against predatory landlords.” In the past, HRI’s work has primarily addressed large-scale illegal overcharges. It has brought several class-action lawsuits, including one against Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The suit seeks a permanent injunction requiring the landlords involved to accept vouchers and punitive damages against them, but mostly seeks to get them “to follow the damn law,” as Carr told the New York Times.

The widespread unlawful refusal to accept vouchers can be difficult to prove, but if tenants have either a recorded conversation or an email or text message showing source of income discrimination by a landlord or broker, they have grounds to file a complaint with the city Human Rights Commission.