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How do NYC’s Fair Housing Laws Affect Renters and Buyers?

Zoe Goldstein

Zoe Goldstein

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Housing Discrimination in NYC

I know what you’re thinking—is there really still housing discrimination in NYC, in 2019?

Unfortunately, yes. Despite its progressive reputation, New York City ranks third in most segregated cities in the nation for African Americans and second for Latin Americans and Asian Americans.

According to the National Fair Housing Alliance, there were over 28,000 reported cases of housing discrimination nationwide in 2016.

Housing discrimination based on disability made up 55 percent of all discrimination cases, while discrimination based on race made up 20 percent.

How exactly does housing discrimination play out in NYC?

Well, according to the director of the Fair Housing Justice Center, Fred Freiburg, the high price of real estate in the big apple coupled with its limited supply puts further pressure on marginalized communities who already face limited housing opportunities.

For example, housing experts say the fact that brokers play such a large role in the NYC housing market can disadvantage consumers and contribute to housing discrimination.

“Real estate agents can subtly filter, steer and guide renters to properties on a discriminatory basis,” Freiburg says.

In other words, brokers may consciously or unconsciously steer renters away from certain neighborhoods on the basis of race.

This process is technically known as racial steering.

The prevalence of brokers also makes it more difficult for renters to know whether or not discrimination is occurring because they are not dealing directly with the landlords.

Redlining is a more extreme discriminatory practice that involves denying real estate services to individuals or selectively raising prices on the basis of their race.

This practice was pervasive in the 1940s and 50s, and particularly affected black families seeking home loans.

The effects of this can be seen in the segregation of neighborhoods today.

It wasn’t until the Fair Housing Act (also known as the Civil Rights Act) passed in 1968 that the federal government took wide sweeping action to combat housing discrimination.

Today fair housing laws exist at the national, state and local levels to protect and safeguard New Yorkers’ rights to fair housing.

If you or someone you know might be the victim of housing discrimination, it helps to be familiar with these fair housing laws before taking further action.

Fair Housing Rights vs. Tenants Rights

First, a word of clarification.

The housing related issue you experience could be either a tenants rights issue or a discrimination case.

If the landlord is applying the same unfair treatment to all renters in the building, for instance, this is a tenants’ rights issue.

(Yes, unfortunately, that means you can’t lawyer up when the landlord refuses every single person in the building’s desperate pleas for central air.)

When problems concerning lease, rental application, lease renewal or other services are not the result of a discriminatory act, there are other resources available to you as a tenant.

In general, tenants rights issues deal with landlord obligations, such as the Warranty of Habitability, lease renewals, and rent payments.

A landlord is guilty of violating housing rights if they refuse to rent a property to a tenant, charge a higher price, distribute advertisements to discourage a tenant from applying, or fail to maintain a property based on the tenant’s status as a member of a protected class.

(More on the idea of protected classes later.)

Look out for discrimination in the screening process

In the applicant screening process, the tenant should note questions that are legitimate, versus ones that may be discriminatory.

Qualifications, inquiries and screening criteria must be applied equally to all applicants.

The Human Rights Law generally forbids landlords from asking pointed questions that may reveal a person’s protected class.

Examples of inquiries that may be evidence of discrimination include:

  • Asking to see a passport or a marriage certificate
  • Requiring medical documentation
  • Requiring anything that reveals race, national origin, citizenship status, sexual orientation, or disability status, if this screening criteria is not applied to all applicants.

When in doubt, call the NYC Human Rights Commission to discuss your situation.

For resolving tenant complaints that do not involve a Fair Housing violation, visit HPD's Tenant Rights page.

How to Make Good Use of NYC’s Fair Housing Laws

On to the good stuff. You may have heard of the biggest housing protection currently in place in NYC—the Fair Housing Act, which prevents discrimination in public and private housing.

But it’s not alone. There are several federal, statewide and city level measures currently in place to help protect buyers and renters in NYC.

But how can they help you?

According to the Fair Housing Act, a person seeking to buy or rent an apartment cannot be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, gender, familial status, religion, sex, or country of origin or because they are a member of any protected class of people.

What is a protected class of people?

A group with a common characteristic who have historically been discriminated against because of that characteristic and are now legally protected under anti-discrimination laws on the basis of that characteristic.

What else besides the Fair Housing Act protects New Yorkers?

New Yorkers are also covered under the NY State Human Rights Law on the basis of sexual orientation, military status, marital status, and age.

They’re also covered by the New York City Human Rights Law against discrimination for alienage/citizenship status, domestic partnership status, gender identity, lawful occupation, lawful source of income (including public assistance/housing assistance, social security, supplemental security income, pensions, or unemployment benefits), status as a victim of domestic violence, sex offenses, or stalking.

All three major housing protection laws in NYC equally apply to both renters and buyers.

Read on:How to Find a NYC Apartment with Low Income

How do fair housing laws impact your home search?

Ok, you’re an expert in NYC’s fair housing policies now, but you might be surprised to learn that the Fair Housing Act affects buyers slightly differently, because it limits what an agent can and can’t do.

If you’re in the business of looking for a house, you’ve most likely heard about or signed up for the benefits of a buyer’s agent.

These professionals help you find a home to fit your needs.

They know the market front, back and side to side, but no matter how much they know about a certain neighborhood, there are certain questions they can’t answer.

This is where the fair housing laws come in.

It is unlawful for a real estate agent to engage in any conduct that is discriminatory towards any of the protected classes.

For example, an agent is not allowed to tell the buyer about whether or not a neighborhood has a specific church, or is dominated by a certain ethnic composition or age group, even when a buyer is adamant that this be part of their equation in determining what homes to show them.

They are obligated by law not to disclose information about protected classes to prospective buyers.

While they may not be able to answer any discriminatory questions, they can point the buyer in the direction of the answers.

Read on: How NYC Real Estate Agents Make Their Money

What Should You Do If You Think You May Be Experiencing Housing Discrimination?

If you believe you have been the victim of housing discrimination, you may file a complaint with the Law Enforcement Bureau of the NYC Commission on Human Rights.

Note that the NYC Human Rights Law requires that the complaint be filed within one year of the alleged act of discrimination, and you can’t file a complaint with the Commission if you’ve already filed a complaint with any other court or agency.

If you want to file a complaint, you’ll have to make an appointment with the Commission by dialing their info line or 311.

It is your right to protest discrimination by filing a complaint.

If the landlord or person with the authority to deal with residents takes harmful actions against you in retaliation, this is illegal.

Examples of harmful actions may include coercive speech, eviction notices, or other vengeful acts.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is responsible for overseeing and administering the Fair Housing Act on a national level.

HUD delegates enforcement and compliance responsibilities to the office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO).

The FHEO is one of the nation’s largest civil rights agencies with a staff of over 600 employees and 54 offices nationwide.

You have the option of filing a complaint directly to the FHEO, but, because the Fair Housing Act is a federal law, you don’t necessarily have to go through the FHEO.

Federal district courts in New York state can hear cases regarding housing discrimination.

Therefore, as a victim of housing discrimination, you have the ability to file a complaint directly with the federal court.

If you go this route, consider hiring legal counsel or working with a nonprofit housing advocacy organization that provides pro bono legal services.

There are many rights advocacy groups here in New York City, which are able to help.