New York City is often seen as a beacon of hope and a land of opportunities. A closer look at the city shows that there are also many underlying problems under the surface. One large problem is housing. Finding housing in such an expensive city can be hard and may even seem impossible at times. As a result, the government offers housing vouchers to assist those who cannot afford housing. An example is the Section 8 program, which gives vouchers to families and individuals with low incomes. Unfortunately, even when families can afford housing with housing vouchers, it is often rendered useless by those who “don’t take section 8 or public/rental assistance.”  However, whether these landowners know it or not, this is illegal in New York City and it is called source of income discrimination.
So what exactly is source of income discrimination? According to New York City Commission on Human Rights, source of income discrimination is when “landlords refuse to rent to current or prospective tenants with public assistance vouchers.”  Before we discuss how this affects the buyer, let’s look at some reasons why the landlords reject tenants with vouchers. One of the main fears of getting a tenant who uses vouchers is the stigma that tenants who use vouchers are very destructive. Another reason landlords reject these tenants is because of the yearly property inspections.  However, many tenants without vouchers can be just as destructive. Not all tenants with vouchers are inclined to destroy property, many just want a safe affordable place to live.
When landlords and real estate brokers refuse to accept these vouchers, the tenants are often left with nowhere to stay and in many cases, they end up on the streets because they cannot find housing that will accept their voucher. There are many cases of source of income discrimination that occur in East New York, Brooklyn. One occurred on October 14, 2014, when 74 years old, Miladys Agosto had to spend two months homeless, because a landlord wouldn’t accept her voucher.  This case started in July 2014 when Agosto was looking for housing. She visited an illegally converted building and signed a two-year contract with the landowners, Valentine and Nicola Johnson. The Johnsons initially accepted the voucher and a portion of her first month’s rent in cash, but later on, they canceled the lease saying that their company wouldn’t accept the voucher. As a result, she had no place to stay for the next two months. Agosto testified that “she felt ‘very bad’ after Respondents (the Johnsons) discriminated against her … [and that] during her period of homelessness she was not able to sleep and suffered the indignity of having to seek permission to shower in different places.”  After two months, in October 2014, Agosto finally found housing, but Johnson refused to return her voucher. This leads her to file a complaint with Citizens Commission on Human Rights. However, the Johnsons refused to cooperate with the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH) and didn’t appear at any of the hearings. In the end, they were fined twice the amount suggested by the judge: $20,000 for discriminating, and $13,000 for the emotional distress they caused Agosto.  As we can see through this example, the tenants facing Source of Income discrimination have to either settle for cheaper more unsafe housing or become homeless and live on the streets. This discrimination is so detrimental to our city because it is increasing the homeless populations and is rendering these vouchers useless.
In order to combat the source of income discrimination, the NYC Commission on Human Rights started to aggressively investigate landlords and brokers who refuse to rent to those who have a housing voucher. In 2014, there were only 13 cases of Lawful Source of Income discrimination out of 107 housing discrimination cases.  According to the NYC Human Rights, “the Commission is currently investigating 230 cases of lawful source of income discrimination …” and their budget for 2018 includes a new Source of Income Unit, which will increase a more directed focus on enforcement and investigation towards income discrimination. The Commission also increased public education in order to inform those with vouchers about their rights and inform them that refusal to take them because of their vouchers is illegal. In 2016, the Commission hosted about 400 workshops and launched a media ad campaign, putting posters in different stores and neighborhoods. In addition to increased public education, the Commission has increased testing. Their testing program involves a matched pair testing where they send “two individuals identical in every way except for having a housing voucher, who seek the same apartment from a landlord.”  This shows that if the landlord rejects the individual with the voucher, that they are discriminating. If the Commission increases the pressure they put on landowners and informs renters on their rights, then the use of vouchers could really help decrease the homeless populations. If you are facing income discrimination today, you can file a complaint with the NYC Commission on Human Rights.