NYC planned to tackle voucher discrimination, but enforcement teams continue to shrink

New York City agencies charged with investigating income source (SOI) discrimination against tenants are being forced to do more with less after employee freezes, layoffs and budget cuts reduced their already overstretched enforcement units.

Adi Talwar

Condominiums in the Bronx.

Dwayne Jones is evicted from his Williamsbridge apartment by a landlord who wants to sell and needs a place to move quickly. He has a housing voucher from the city that will pay most of his rent, but he can’t find an owner to take it.

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

He said he was afraid he ran out of time. Management companies keep an eye on him when they learn that he has a government-funded housing benefit. Brokers have told him that the owners they know “have nothing for programs,” he said.

Both practices, examples of income discrimination, are illegal in New York City. They’re also ubiquitous (there’s even an active website advising property owners NEVER accept a renter with a CityFHEPS voucher). But New York City agencies charged with tackling income discrimination (SOI) are being forced to do more with less after employee freezes, layoffs and budget cuts have reduced their already overstretched enforcement units.

Last year’s city budget was supposed to strengthen 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 is tackling the source of income discrimination, up from nine last year. The agency initially hoped to hire 10 additional lawyers and researchers to “eradicate this pernicious practice,” then-Commissioner Steve Banks said in June 2021. But during subsequent budget negotiations, the money was reallocated to the Human Rights Commission ( CCHR), to bolster its own Source of Income Unit.

That didn’t happen. There is now only one staffer assigned to CCHR’s SOI unit – fewer than three in 2021 and six in recent years. Other firm attorneys and investigators are also doing their best in SOI cases while addressing various other forms of discrimination, but CCHR suggested eliminating vacant positions that could have been used to bolster the SOI unit as part of the mandate. from Mayor Eric Adams to cut costs.

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

“It’s insane,” said Aaron Carr, executive director of the Housing Rights Initiative, using two expletives to underscore his point. “It would still be insufficient in a city with a fraction of New York City’s population, but this is the nation’s largest city with one of the highest housing costs in the nation.”

Carr has often urged city and state governments to use more enforcement gear and crack down on income discrimination, which he says erodes the impact of critical housing benefits and leaves people in shelters or unstable housing situations. He said his watchdog group is finalizing its own six-month investigation into source of income discrimination in hundreds of companies after a sweeping investigation of major New York City real estate companies culminated in a lawsuit last March.

Councilor Keith Powers, who supported legislation to extend income discrimination protections to small properties by 2020, called the current workforce “unacceptable”.

“It is vital that we [are] invest enough in adequate enforcement against SOI discrimination, and I will push for those units to be fully funded in the coming budget cycle,” he said in a statement.

The two city authorities acknowledge that staffing levels have declined but say they have been able to step up enforcement, move tenants into apartments and change their behavior after threatening legal action. (For their part, some property owners have previously expressed frustration at the administrative delays associated with the CityFHEPS program, including payments from the city that they believe are inconsistent.)

Both CCHR and DSS enforcement units prioritize what they call “pre-grievance intervention” and view lawsuits as a last resort. Under the intervention model, the units’ employees will contact a landlord, broker or management company accused of STI discrimination, remind them that voucher bias violates the law, and threaten 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 any of the past two, according to agency statistics. The SOI unit has filed 29 complaints since July 2021, with three months remaining in the fiscal year, compared to 28 in fiscal 2021 and 27 in fiscal 2020. CCHR has received fewer damages and fines from property owners breaking rules this year, but has also reached a settlement with landlords to reserve more units for tenants with housing vouchers.

“I am very proud of the work my agency is doing and of our law enforcement officers,” said CCHR Deputy Commissioner Sapna Raj. “It’s frustrating that even though the law has been on the books since 2008, STI discrimination is still so rampant in New York City. That’s really frustrating.”

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

Last fiscal year, the unit followed up 909 cases of discrimination, or what they call “questions,” including 360 accusatory sources of income discrimination. Some of the complaints were reported by potential renters, while others were discovered by staffers during proactive investigations, such as searching online property listings for voucher disclaimers. The agency said 99 of the questions provided enough information for enforcement teams to intervene and secure housing for 51 households. This meant a higher number of successful interventions than the previous financial year.

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

Leave a Comment