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By Leonard Sparks, Senior Editor

March 3, 2023

Victims include disabled, renters with vouchers

A complaint filed by a nonprofit advocacy agency against a developer for alleged housing discrimination began with apartments in Dutchess County.

Beginning in 2019, Westchester Residential Opportunities (WRO) employed people to pose as prospective renters with federal housing vouchers hoping to rent at two complexes owned by Dawn Homes: Chelsea Ridge Apartments in Wappingers Falls and Village Parks Apartments in Pleasant Valley.

By May 2021, WRO felt it had enough evidence to notify the state Human Rights Commission of alleged discrimination against potential renters with vouchers from the low-income Section 8 program and Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS. The complaint names seven properties comprising 2,000 apartments.

Now, the strategy of sending in “testers” with vouchers is getting a boost. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Feb. 24 that the state’s own testing program will receive a $2.2 million expansion and cover 48 counties, Long Island and New York City’s five boroughs. Six nonprofits will share the funding, including WRO, which says it conducts 500 to 1,000 tests a year, including some in Dutchess and Putnam counties.

A report from the organization, based on 823 tests conducted principally in Dutchess, Rockland and Westchester from June 2019 to May 2022, said it found unequal treatment or a violation of fair-housing laws in 18 percent of the cases.

People with disabilities and those with low-income vouchers were the most-frequent victims, according to WRO. Last year, the organization sued a real-estate agent and a brokerage for discriminating against Section 8 recipients. It also won a $60,000 award against a broker.

In another case from 2022, the state Attorney General’s Office relied on testers to investigate a Manhattan brokerage accused of refusing rental applications from people with Section 8 vouchers. The company agreed in November to waive fees for the first 25 applicants with Section 8 vouchers and to train employees and post signs saying that it accepts vouchers.

Dutchess County identified the same barrier in its 2022 housing-needs assessment, which highlighted “concerns about active discrimination by landlords toward Section 8 tenants” as higher-paying tenants from New York City drive up rents.

For people awarded hard-to-come-by housing vouchers, “there’s just fewer and fewer places they can rent,” said Andrew Smith, deputy executive director for WRO. “If on top of that you get discrimination, it’s super challenging. It happens every day and it is tragic.”

Federal, state and county laws prohibit discrimination against a range of “protected classes,” including disability, gender, race, sexual orientation and source of income. People with disabilities can also ask for “reasonable accommodations,” such as the installation of ramps or keeping emotional-support animals where pets are not allowed.

Before the federal government and states instituted laws, housing providers and real-estate agents could openly discriminate. Today, landlords and agents are subtler, said Smith.

“Nobody says, ‘We’re not going to rent to you,’” he said. “But they’ll say, ‘We don’t have anything available,’ or ‘This doesn’t work for you.’”

Smith said complaints and lawsuits are reserved for egregious, frequent violators. The state grant will also fund education and outreach that targets landlords and real-estate agent as well as renters and homebuyers.

Sometimes WRO will contact brokers to notify them of violations and other times reminds housing providers about the laws, said Smith. Real-estate agents and landlords generally treat everyone fairly, he said.

“It’s complicated stuff and landlords sometimes are trying to do the best they can, but they don’t understand the law and its nuances,” he said.

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