The caller was a woman who wanted to move her boyfriend into a studio apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side that was advertised for $ 1,751 a month. The man who replied, the real estate agent on the list, said he would like to show them the place.
However, the woman had one final question: would the landlord accept her federal housing voucher for tenants with less funds, known as Section 8?
“If she accepts what? Oh no, she wouldn't, ”said Harris Philip, an independent broker, to the woman who was actually an undercover investigator for a surveillance group. "She just doesn't do it. She wants well-qualified people."
This exchange, secretly taped by the Housing Rights Initiative group in February 2020 and shared with The Times, is part of a comprehensive lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Manhattan alleging discrimination against 88 brokerage firms and landlords in New York City to have people with vouchers.
The lawsuit tells of dozens of conversations recorded by investigators posing as potential tenants and describes the extraordinary challenges tenants face from Section 8. This is essentially a federal government guaranteed rental check that is a pillar of rental support for many American families.
Section 8 was passed in 1978 and is a $ 22 billion annual program administered by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development but administered by the local housing authorities. New York City receives the largest share in the country.
In New York, these tenants are mostly black and Latino. More than 125,000 households in the city use residential vouchers according to Section 8.
Companies named in the lawsuit include small landlords and brokers, as well as large national companies like Compass, the Corcoran Group, and a Century 21 Manhattan franchise office.
For landlords and brokers, participating in the Section 8 program can present bureaucratic challenges, including an inspector review and approval of the health and safety of a unit prior to renting it. However, these additional steps cannot be used as a reason for rejecting a tenant in accordance with Section 8.
A spokeswoman for the Corcoran Group said the company is required to "adhere to the principles of the Fair Housing Act," with reference to the Federal Act of 1968, and to "offer comprehensive training and education programs for our employees and affiliated sales representatives."
"We take these allegations seriously," said the spokeswoman.
A spokesman for Century 21 corporate headquarters declined to discuss the case, but said the company will not tolerate discrimination. Compass did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr Philip, the realtor for the Upper East Side apartment, said in an interview that he did not remember that conversation last year but knew that it was illegal in New York to discriminate against someone because of their source of income.
"I would never say anything so straightforward because I think Section 8 is qualified," said Philip, adding that he had been a broker for 40 years but had never rented to anyone with a voucher. "Maybe she rubbed me wrong."
For years, covert operations have been widely used to expose potential discrimination in both the rental and homeowner markets. The method is also used by government investigators, including those acting against discrimination under Section 8.
The lawsuit raises questions not only about widespread bias against voucher recipients, but also about agents and owners' apparent disregard for New York City and New York state laws that prohibit discrimination against people based on their source of income.
Since unused vouchers expire within 120 days without renewal, any rejection is a significant setback in finding an apartment, which is already difficult in the expensive New York rental market.
"Our goal here is simple: to get real estate companies to abandon their discriminatory housing practices and abide by the damn law," said Aaron Carr, the founder and executive director of the Housing Rights Initiative, which began Keeping Housing and Deciding Where in 2016 Families live where they work and where children go to school. Discrimination against housing goes beyond the walls of housing. "
The lawsuit seeks to seek unspecified financial damages and to stop the discriminatory practices.
During their yearlong research, the Housing Rights Initiative identified homes across the city that would have been affordable for a tenant with a voucher. The group created a profile of a potential tenant, often that of a working-class woman with good credit, and recorded 477 phone calls from units found on the StreetEasy listing page.
Many calls lasted several minutes as the agent or landlord described the unit and asked about the background of the tenant. In 48 percent of these calls, however, the broker or landlord ended the call as soon as the undercover investigator mentioned the voucher – some even hung up depending on the lawsuit.
The group heard a number of reasons for rejection. Some were subtle – "I don't think this condo is suitable for your needs," a Corcoran broker said of a Manhattan condo – while many pointed out that the vouchers would not be accepted.
Tamaine Hamilton grew up in the care system, moved to temporary accommodation three years ago, and spent that time finding an apartment that would accept his Section 8 voucher. He said he had submitted more than 75 apartment applications and had not yet been accepted.
"I will never give up because I don't have the luxury of giving up," said 26-year-old Hamilton.
Some of the allegations in the lawsuit reflect the findings of the New York Human Rights Commission, the agency that investigates income discrimination claims and has received more than $ 1.2 million in fines and damages from landlords since 2014.
The pandemic has hampered the Commission's work – the income discrimination department has been reduced to three people after two employees left the company last year. They cannot be replaced until the city lifts a hiring freeze that has continued During the outbreak, a commission spokeswoman said.
"The cases submitted are a fraction of the discrimination that actually occurred," said Katherine Carroll, an assistant commissioner at the Law Enforcement Bureau.
The New York Attorney General is also investigating allegations of income discrimination and has a form for renters to file complaints. A spokeswoman said most complaints will be resolved by the office sending a cease and desist letter to end the discriminatory practices.
The lawsuit alleges realtors and landlords for violating city and state income discrimination laws.
"Between legal services, civil rights law firms and regulators, there aren't enough people to deal with this widespread problem," said Robert Desir, a Legal Aid Society attorney who was involved in the lawsuit. "We hope that by making these lawsuits and exposing the situation, we can hold people accountable, especially owners, who have access to large numbers of homes."
The New York City Housing Authority, the largest Section 8 provider in the country, has a waiting list of 36,065 applicants, the agency said. Preference is given to people trying to evacuate shelters and domestic violence survivors.
§ 8 Apartment recipients usually pay 30 percent of their monthly income for the rent, whereby the voucher covers the remaining amount of rent and ancillary costs.
Nancy Padilla, who lived in shelters for 20 years after leaving an abusive relationship, found the excuses and refusals cited in the lawsuit to be familiar.
After switching between shelters, Ms. Padilla finally found an apartment in Queens in 2018 where she would accept her Section 8 voucher. But she said she spent hundreds of dollars on non-refundable registration fees, only to be turned down when she mentioned the voucher.
"The roller coaster ride they took me on had a nervous breakdown," said Ms. Padilla, 58. "You are playing with someone's life."