If you think you can reject potential renters just because they have housing vouchers or some other source of income, you may want to check your local regulations. In a number of jurisdictions around the country, the practice isn’t legal and civil rights organizations are forcing landlords to take notice.
Not surprisingly, at the head of the pack is the Washington D.C.-based Equal Rights Center (ERC), which has been in an eight-year battle to identify and eliminate discrimination against housing choice voucher holders in the greater D.C. metropolitan area, in addition to by going after giants in the apartment industry for accessible housing issues.
“Two dozen jurisdictions across the nation have these kinds of laws that protect against source of income discrimination,” says Don Kahl, executive director of the ERC. “They say [that] someone who is renting housing whether it’s a landlord or rental agent or a real estate broker can’t treat a potential tenant differently because of the source of their income, whether that’s a voucher from government, a disability voucher from a local agency, or child support or alimony.”
Its most recent skirmish was with Greer, S.C.-based Level One, a national apartment leasing call center. On June 12, the ERC announced an agreement with LevelOne that would resolve “concerns that Housing Choice Voucher holders were provided with inaccurate information about the availability of apartments at local rental properties owned and managed by Level One’s clients, in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act.”
With the agreement, ERC says it has ensured that Level One agents answering rental calls for properties located in the District of Columbia, and in Howard and Montgomery Counties in Maryland, will advise potential renters that vouchers are accepted for rent payment.
But call centers haven’t been ERC’s only target. Since 2004, the ERC says it “has reached agreements with more than 25 landlords and property managers, opening more than 17,500 apartment units in the greater D.C. metropolitan area to voucher holders.” Kahl says the ERC takes a multi-faceted approach where it finds instances of “discriminatory conduct.” It reaches out to work with the company not accepting various sources of income, and it either reaches a voluntary agreement or files a complaint.
Christopher Hanback, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of the Holland & Knight law firm, has actually defended clients against ERC’s voucher suits on a few occasions. Often he finds the issues aren’t because of ignorance of the law.
“The companies we deal with are fully aware of it,” he says. “They actually have procedures in place to comply. In every instance, the confusion was an administrative issue.”
While Hanback personally agrees with the spirit of the source of income protections, he thinks lawsuits should be the last resort. “There shouldn’t be lawsuits on these things unless it’s abundantly obvious that a landlord is incalcitrant and won’t comply,” he says.