The New York Voucher Discrimination Unit now has zero employees

Defense attorneys say limited enforcement undermines the effectiveness of the city’s own rent vouchers, endangering New Yorkers with homelessness or extending the length of time they stay in shelters even if they have the means to pay.

New York Human Rights Commission

A poster of the New York Commission on Human Rights, aimed at curbing housing discrimination.

Then there were no such.

After years of leaving workers and unfulfilled vacancies, the municipal enforcement unit tasked with taking action against the most common form of housing discrimination in New York left not a single staff member, City Limits has learned.

The last stunned lawyer who worked for the New York City Human Rights Commission (CCHR)’s Source of Income (SOI) unit resigned on April 1 and was not replaced. The SOI unit files complaints, intervenes and sometimes files lawsuits on behalf of tenants who say they were denied an apartment because they have a government subsidy, like a section 8 federal voucher or a local CityFHEPS voucher that helps cover rent.

The prevailing practice – expressed in online apartment registration, recorded phone calls with realtors and even a website advising apartment owners to reject voucher holders – is the most common form of illegal housing bias in the city, according to CCHR annual reports.

However, as previously reported by City Boundaries, the SOI unit shrank from six employees three years ago, to three in 2021 to just one last month, despite calls to step up enforcement and an spending plan that would allow the agency to add at least 10 lawyers and staff to the unit this year. CCHR did not eventually recruit a single new SOI enforcer, and instead moved to reduce unfulfilled vacancies that could have strengthened the unit as part of Mayor Eric Adams’ cost-cutting mandate.

“It’s really heartbreaking to see such a powerful unit dissolve,” said Steph Rudolph, a former head of the SOI unit who left the agency in 2020 and now works for JustFix.

Rudolph, who uses the nicknames they and they, said the municipality is failing to comply with its human rights law, which authorizes the CCHR to take action against apartment owners, property managers and realtors who waterfall renters with housing subsidies.

“The city’s failure to fund the CCHR, and in addition, the CCHR’s own failure to internally support the SOI unit actively harms the resource-poor New Yorkers – those from historically oppressed communities, those with disabilities and those most in need of stable housing.” They said.

Other housing rights advocates say the limited enforcement undermines the effectiveness of the city’s own rent vouchers, endangering New Yorkers with homelessness or extending the length of time they stay in shelters even if they have the means to pay.

“If the mayor really wants to treat the homeless the way he claims he does, his administration needs to fund the Human Rights Committees’ SOI unit to do its job effectively,” said Amy Bloomsk, whose Neighbors Together organization helps tenants use their coupons and fight In discrimination.

The City Council voted last year to increase the value of CityFHEPS subsidies to fair rent in the market to allow more people to use them to afford an apartment, but only a small proportion of CityFHEPS voucher recipients are able to find a place in practice. Voucher holders face burdensome administrative hurdles, further complicated by realtors and building managers who refuse to hire them – and who face little accountability from the municipality, Blomsk said.

“Without adequate funding and staffing, this reduces the effectiveness of the CityFHEPS voucher and undermines the intention to raise the level of payment last year and leaves people homeless more than necessary,” Bloomsk added.

Neighbors Together and UnlockNYC urged the city to increase spending on CCHR’s SOI unit by at least $ 1 million and hire more staff to deal with coupon discrimination. Brokers who break the law have adapted to avoid enforcement by removing explicit language against subsidies from apartment registrations and instead “ghosts” voucher holders – refuse to return calls when they know they have a subsidy – or impose additional restrictions, such as minimum credit requirements or tenants insisting From the monthly rent, although the cost is covered by the government.

Although no one is currently working in the SOI unit, CCHR Deputy Commissioner JoAnn Kamuf Ward said the agency will continue to intervene in cases of coup discrimination. Lawyers and other agency staff took on several SOI cases as the main unit shrank, CCHR told City Limits last month.

“The Human Rights Commission is committed to addressing discrimination from a source of income and fulfilling the mandate of our agency,” Kamoff Ward said. “Our team will continue to respond to allegations of discrimination in this area and proactively eradicate discrimination on the basis of income while we work to protect the human rights of New Yorkers.”

The CCHR did not respond to questions about how and when they intend to replace the staff members who left.

In recent years, the CCHR has favored what it calls a “pre-complaint intervention,” with SOI unit employees immediately contacting homeowners, brokers or management companies accused of discriminating against SOI and reminding them that voucher bias violates municipal law. The agency is threatening to take further action unless the tenant is offered a lease.

Such a swift response is essential to the fight against discrimination in an overheated rental market where apartments are being hijacked quickly, say city officials and housing supporters. For many voucher recipients, the pressure to find a home increases as time goes on: a person who waits years for a Section 8 voucher may end up losing it if he or she does not use it.

The CCHR has provided statistics showing that the agency has filed more complaints on behalf of tenants in the current fiscal year than in one of the last two. The SOI unit filed 29 complaints between July 2021 and March this year, compared to 28 in fiscal year 2021 and 27 in fiscal year 2020. CCHR has received less compensation and penalties from property owners so far this year, but said it was over. With apartment owners set aside more units for tenants with housing vouchers.

The New York City Department of Social Services (DSS) also operates its own shrinking SOI enforcement unit, known as the Fair Housing Litigation Unit, with six staff members who prefer pre-complaint intervention. The agency occasionally files complaints of discrimination in a civil court on behalf of the municipality, but only the CCHR can sue on behalf of people facing discrimination. During budget negotiations last year, money for renting reinforcements at the Fair Housing Litigation Unit was reallocated to the CCHR, DSS said.

In the absence of more aggressive enforcement by the city, nonprofit organizations, such as the Housing Rights Initiative (HRI) and the Fair Housing Justice Center, have intervened. Both organizations have sued some of New York City’s major real estate players, such as Lark, Corcoran Group and Compass, for allegedly biasing people with rent subsidies.

It is not difficult to find voucher recipients who have encountered SOI discrimination, or property owners who engage in practice.

Williamsbridge resident Dwayne Jones, who has a CityFHEPS voucher, said he was facing eviction from his current home but could not find a landlord or realtor willing to return calls or emails to him when he learned he had a subsidy. He told City Limits last month that he feared he would have no choice but to enter the shelter system.

Jessica Valencia, a spokeswoman for UnlockNYC, said she had faced discrimination more than 50 times while looking for an apartment with a state-owned FHEPS voucher in 2019. So, she was evicted from a Diker Heights apartment and was looking for a new place nearby.

She said she often called 311 to file a complaint, but never received a response from City Hall until she turned to UnlockNYC for assistance. The organization helped her connect with CCHR, which intervened on her behalf after a broker tried to keep her and her family away from the Borough Park apartment.

“I do not know what the CCHR told them, but the next day the realtor called and offered the unit,” Valencia told City Limits last month. “It shows the power they have to enforce.”

But UnlockNYC product designer Ashley Eberhart said the city’s limited enforcement units mean more tenants seeking help against discrimination could be haunted again – this time by the agency that is supposed to hold property owners and realtors accountable.

“After being rejected, disconnected or ignored by hundreds of brokers, the last thing a tenant with a voucher should do is call 311, leave a voicemail asking for help, and never get an answer,” Valencia told City Limits last month. . “As the CCHR’s revenue source unit shrinks, more New Yorkers are left numb in the system that gives them a voucher, but there’s no way to use it.”

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