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Opening Acts: June 22, 2021

Source of Income Discrimination Alleged at Manhattan Apartment Complex

TENANTS WITH RENTAL SUBSIDIES REQUIRED TO HAVE GUARANTORS

Today, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) and Ms. B, a woman using a CityFHEPS voucher to pay her rent, filed a source of income discrimination lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court against the property owner 63 West Realty Corp., realty firm Apt212 Inc., and agents Jeanette Gong and Georgeann Chang.

Plaintiff Ms. B. contacted the defendants last winter hoping to find a suitable apartment for her family. She and her young child had been in the city shelter system since losing their apartment during the COVID-19 pandemic, and she hoped to secure housing before the impending birth of her second child. The Lincoln Square Apartments located at 244 West 64th Street in Manhattan were within the range of her recently acquired CityFHEPS voucher, but once the agent showing her the apartment learned about her voucher, the agent terminated the viewing and escorted Ms. B. to the lobby. She was told that her voucher made additional conditions like a guarantor and good credit score necessary, and that there was no point in viewing more units because the owner was “very strict.” This experience left her feeling rejected, humiliated, and dejected, and the delay prevented her from finding stable housing prior to giving birth. Ms. B. subsequently contacted the FHJC for assistance.

The FHJC completed an investigation earlier this year at the 300+ unit Lincoln Square Apartments. FHJC testers telephoned the agents inquiring about available apartments that had been advertised online. In recorded conversations, the agents were initially eager to meet with the testers and show them the available units. However, once agents learned that some of the testers would be using Section 8 or CityFHEPS vouchers to pay a portion of their rent, the agents became resistant and less encouraging. The agents stated that applicants unable to meet the minimum income requirement of 40 times the gross monthly rent would need a guarantor, despite the voucher payment itself being guaranteed. Testers were also encouraged to buy insurance from a company called Insurent that would serve as a “third-party guarantor.” State and local law prohibits landlords and real estate agents from requiring prospective voucher tenants to obtain guarantors or purchase guaranty insurance. Eventually the agents stopped responding to communications from these testers with subsidies, ignoring phone calls and texts altogether.

An additional tester with income solely from employment contacted one of the defendants inquiring about available apartments. Despite having an income below the 40-times the monthly rent requirement, this tester was not told he would need a guarantor and was, instead, met with enthusiasm and offered an appointment to view the available apartments. The lawsuit alleges that this difference in treatment constitutes “a pattern and practice of discriminating against prospective tenants who wish to use housing subsidy vouchers.”

The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages as well as injunctive relief to stop the source of income discrimination.

FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg commented, “Source of income discrimination in housing has been against the law in New York City since 2008 and in New York State since 2019. Despite these prohibitions, many landlords, management companies and real estate agents continue to flout the law and flagrantly trample on the rights of vulnerable populations who are simply trying to secure a decent place to live for themselves and their families using a rental subsidy that is guaranteed by the government.” Freiberg added, “Homelessness and rampant housing insecurity are not problems that are easily solved. Rental subsidies are helpful but only if housing providers comply with their legal obligation to consider tenants using these subsidies.”

The FHJC is represented by Mariann Meier Wang, Eric Hecker, and Alice G. Reiter of the law firm Cuti Hecker Wang LLP and Ms. B. is represented by Bianca Cappellini and Chiansan Ma of Bronx Legal Services

FHJC’s investigation in this case was supported with funding from the Robin Hood Foundation as part of FHJC’s Finding Apartments for Subsidized Tenants (FAST) initiative. Through the FAST initiative, the FHJC targets testing resources to investigate systemic housing discrimination with the aim of opening housing opportunities up in well-resourced NYC neighborhoods that have lower crime rates, high-performing schools, and a supply of affordable rental housing. Once these housing opportunities have been identified, the FHJC works with partnering organizations to directly assist individuals and families with rental subsidies to locate housing.

The mission of the FHJC, a nonprofit civil rights organization, is to eliminate housing discrimination; promote policies and programs that foster open, accessible, and inclusive communities; and strengthen enforcement of fair housing laws in the New York City region.