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Q&A: CNY housing group directors analyze source of income protection, discrimination


If you are a family that depends on public assistance or Section 8 it can be extremely difficult to find decent housing. A study done by CNY Fair Housing found that those who receive government-funded housing vouchers — or Section 8 — are frequently denied housing.

They are turned away because they are not allowed to claim the funds they receive from Section 8 as a source of income because of the stigma associated with that program and also with public assistance.

In order to combat that and help ensure more fair housing opportunities, many cities and states have passed “source of income” protection laws against landlords who deny potential tenants based on their source of income.

  1. California
  2. Connecticut
  3. District of Columbia
  4. Maine
  5. Massachusetts
  6. Minnesota
  7. New Jersey
  8. North Dakota
  9. Oklahoma
  10. Oregon
  11. Utah
  12. Vermont
  13. Wisconsin

In other cases, cities or municipalities have a source of income law. New York State does not have a statewide law but there are local laws in Buffalo, Hamburg, Nassau County, New York City, West Seneca and Westchester.

The director of CNY Fair housing, Sally Santangelo, finds source of income to be one of the obstacles many families face when looking for housing. Santangelo explains the importance of source of income:

A: Source of income protects people from discrimination based on where their income comes from. So if someone were receiving a Section 8 voucher or public assistance, they would be protected against discrimination from that source.

A: Now provided that the person has enough income to rent an apartment and meets all the housing provider’s qualifications such as background checks, then the landlord or housing provider would have to accept that source of income toward the rent of that apartment.

A: It is a fair housing concern because there is such a disproportionate use of things like housing choice vouchers or Section 8 housing vouchers by people who are protected under fair housing laws such as people with disabilities, families with children, and racial and ethnic minorities. We found in our study that there are a very limited number of housing providers who will accept these sources of income. So people who rely on these things have limited choices on their housing.

Sally Santangelo

Sally Santangelo

The CNY Fair Housing study reviewed Craigslist advertisements for the Syracuse area for a one-week period. Of the 712 advertisements that were reviewed, only 25 ads said they would take Section 8 or public assistance while 94 ads specifically said they would not accept either source of income. Most of the other ads, 593 of them, were silent on the issue. Of the 25 ads that indicated they would accept Section 8 or public assistance, only one was outside the city of Syracuse.

Onondaga County and Syracuse do not have a source of income law, and many local organizations are looking to change that. The executive director of The Greater Syracuse Tenants NetworkSharon Sherman, talks about the stigma associated with Section 8.

A: Right now, these tenants are not given a chance. When we talk to landlords on how to select proper tenants, we do talk to them about how to research on whether this particular tenant is able to pay the rent. If they can just say they will not accept tenants on Section 8 or advertise “no Section 8 and public assistance,” they are not giving tenants the opportunity to be evaluated equally with other applicants. They cannot currently discriminate against race or marital status but they can say they are not going to talk to people who have these types of, at the moment, legal discriminations.

Sherman and the Tenants Network work to combat the negative connotation of Section 8 and public assistance by conducting landlord trainings.

A: I think there is a great lack of information and education about the difference between Section 8 and just being on public assistance. People mix them up and stereotypes of low-income bring crime, things of that nature. One of the things we try to explain to the landlords is that a Section 8 voucher is really hard to come by. You can lose your Section 8 if you are successfully evicted for non-payment of rent by a landlord or if you’re evicted for damaging a property. So a Section 8 tenant is much more likely to follow through on their obligations because they do not want to lose the voucher.

One of the cities in New York that has a local source of income law is Buffalo. The law was passed in 2006, but Scott Gehl, director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, or HOME, has seen source of income protection somewhat ineffective in practice in Buffalo.

A: Absent source of income it would be perfectly legal for a housing provider or landlord to discriminate against members of any given occupation. However, in practical terms we have found that source of income discrimination usually manifests in discrimination against people who receive some portion of their income from governmental assistance, and discrimination against the poor. We also believe that source of income discrimination, which in most municipalities in Western New York is legal, is often used as a subterfuge for racial discrimination or single-parent households, among others.

A: The law is not as strong as it was intended to be. In 2005 a member of the Buffalo Common Council approached me about writing a new fair housing law, and we wrote it together and there was some back and forth and then there was a period of silence when the sponsor was unresponsive. During that time, we later found out the law had been redrafted by the city’s law department. There are some problems in the enforcement mechanism that persists. The Buffalo ordinance is actually much broader than the fair housing laws in the New York State human rights laws.

A: We are now having an issue with housing providers who will supposedly accept a Section 8 housing voucher but have declined a security deposit agreement, which is what the Erie County Department of Social Services offers for the clients they assist. While Section 8 will provide a subsidy for rent it does not provide money for a security deposit, so that is often the deal breaker for many landlords. (The security deposit agreement promises that the county will make good on behalf of the client if there are problems with issues such as damage to property).

HOME has found that Fair Housing and source of income protection have not been a high priority for local officials in Buffalo. Although the city has an ordinance that protects against source of income discrimination, Gehl has found that there are ways people have avoided the ordinance and continued to reject tenants on Section 8 and public assistance.

Discrimination based on source of legal income limits housing choice

If people derive some or all of their income from a form other than wages, they tend to struggle. It is extremely difficult to find rental units that accept Section 8 or public assistance. In surveys and focus groups, this was identified as the No. 1 reason individuals are discriminated against in their housing. People with disabilities, families with children, female-headed households and racial and ethnic minorities often face difficulty as well.

The voucher program is intended to provide individuals with mobility and access to better opportunity, yet it often does not. One potential solution to the problem is to add “source of legal income” as a class protected by local anti-discrimination laws. Promoting and supporting efforts to have source of legal income added as a protected class in New York state could also help. Another goal is to increase the number of landlords that accept housing choice vouchers throughout all parts of the county. There are many steps that could be taken to help ensure legal income does not limit housing choices, and these are just some of them.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

Private market practices in rentals, lending and homeowner’s
insurance put some people at a disadvantage: minorities, families with children, people with disabilities and transgender individuals

There are many private market practices in rentals, lending and homeowner’s insurance that have been impediments to fair housing in Central New York. These practices include denying rental housing to individuals with mental illness and families with children, mortgage underwriting that leads to minority applicants being denied, and the fact that landlords can deny housing based on tenants’ gender identity. There are many recommended solutions to these problems. Among them: increasing access to sustainable mortgages for racial minorities; promoting gender identity as a protected class; supporting systemic investigations of housing discrimination; educating housing providers in fair housing laws; supporting fair housing education for protected classes; and supporting tenants’ rights education for all renters.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

Housing history in the city of Syracuse: Unfair past leads to unfair present

Many discriminatory practices and unfair policies in the last century have shaped Syracuse’s housing environment today — so much that it’s led Syracuse to becoming the ninth most segregated city in the country in 2010.

In the 1930s, neighborhoods were ranked based on their financial security. Race played a big factor in these rankings, where neighborhoods with mostly African-Americans were considered high financial risks. These high-risk, predominantly African-American neighborhoods were colored in red on the residential security maps, which is where the term “redlining” is believed to have come from. These evaluations, by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, were intended to prevent foreclosures. The side effect was creating racial segregation for housing opportunities. Having African-Americans in wealthier neighborhoods meant having others’ home values decrease. As a result, landlords and homeowners in wealthier neighborhoods would refuse to sell homes or rent to African-Americans. Redlined areas were the city’s Near Westside and the 15th Ward. Syracuse’s South and West Sides, along with the suburban areas in Galeville, Mattydale, East Syracuse, Solvay and Nedrow, were colored yellow, just a grade above being redlined.

New York State’s first public housing project was in the 15th Ward, a redlined neighborhood. This would start the trend of creating public housing in neighborhoods that also had very low opportunity for growth — making the situation a lot worse. The 15th Ward was destroyed in the 1950s and 1960s, to make space for Interstate 81. As nearly 1,300 displaced residents moved into other areas, white residents left in fear of having their home values decrease.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

HOME and Gehl are continuing to hear instances of source of income discrimination and are pursuing lawsuits for its clients. HOME has tried to enforce the Buffalo ordinance through referring cases to the New York State attorney general and the New York State Supreme Court. However, it is time-consuming: the first case it filed in 2008 was not concluded until January this year.

Gehl and many other local organizations are looking to pressure state officials to pass a statewide provision to protect against source of income discrimination. New York has attempted to pass a statewide source of income provision numerous times, dating back to the 1980s. While it has passed various times in the state Assembly it has always been shut down in the Senate.

Gehl suggests that having a strong statewide source of income law would be the best solution. But in the meantime, HOME is working with the Erie County Fair Housing Partnership to pass a countywide fair housing law in Erie County.

Stephen ConnorsQ&A: CNY housing group directors analyze source of income protection, discrimination
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