Talk to most anyone who's been in the homeless shelter system for any extended period of time and you've heard the stories: many of the 58,000 New Yorkers in the system have had some kind of voucher to help them pay rent for months, or even longer than a year, yet have been unable to find an apartment, in large part because landlords won't accept them. This is despite a city law banning such discrimination [pdf].
The problem was most recently spotlighted by WNYC's Long Way Home series, which followed single mother of three Shakira Crawford. Crawford works, like a third of homeless adults. Despite having a LINC voucher good for $1,100 of a $1,500 rent, she has been unable in 10 months of searching to find a habitable apartment where the landlord will accept the city's money. Landlords flout the ban on source-of-income discrimination so openly that it's easy to find rental ads that explicitly spell out "no vouchers."
A recent Daily News investigation shows that it's not homeless people's imagination: city enforcement of this law really is anemic, and landlords are flouting it with near-impunity. Source-of-income discrimination was made illegal by a 2008 law pushed in part by then-councilman Bill de Blasio. Violations are punishable by fines of as much as $250,000, but the biggest fine the enforcing Human Rights Commission has imposed since it went into effect has been $20,000, and that was against a discriminating broker cleared of source-of-income violations but found guilty of marital status discrimination, the News found.
The average fine the commission handed out was just $5,441, and of 157 source-of-income cases handled in the last seven years, 97 ended with no financial penalties against the landlord or broker. All told, the tabloid found, realtors have paid just $238,398 in fines, damages, rent abatements, and reimbursements, and brought actual fines in only 34 cases. For comparison, 300,000 New Yorkers receive rent subsidies, and tales of discrimination abound.
"Why aren’t you going after those guys? We have client after client saying, 'Everyone is turning me away,'" attorney Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society told the News.
Human Rights Commissioner Carmelyn Malalis told the News the commission is "aggressively" investigating voucher discrimination cases, and two months ago the agency started sending out more undercover investigators to pose as prospective renters with and without vouchers and test whether landlords and brokers are abiding by the law.
Spokesman Seth Hoy said the commission is "conducting the highest and most thorough number of investigations into voucher discrimination in years so tenants can have a roof over their heads as soon as possible." The agency reportedly opened 85 cases this year.
De Blasio created the LINC program in September 2014 as a replacement for the Advantage program discontinued by Governor Cuomo and former mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2011. Last month, DNAinfo reported that 80 percent of LINC vouchers were going unused, in part due to discrimination. Other forms of vouchers include the federal, NYCHA-administered Section 8 program. Many homeless New Yorkers who have experienced voucher discrimination say landlords don't trust the city to pay consistently.
Meanwhile, Crawford continues to raise her family in a single room at a shelter in East New York.
"The year's about to finish and I'm still here," she told WNYC. "Am I ever going to find a place?"