OPINION: No one with a legal income should be denied a home they can afford
Ten years ago, New York City amended its human rights law to ban housing discrimination against lawful source of income. The change outlawed the common practice of landlords denying housing to individuals paying rent with non-wage income, like veteran benefits, disability benefits, Section 8 vouchers or child support. But the law was not strong enough, exempting most of the housing stock in the outer boroughs and leaving residents vulnerable.
Even with the law in place, discriminatory practices continue. In 2017 alone, the NYC Commission on Human Rights investigated more than 200 cases of source-of-income discrimination by landlords and brokers, including many in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods where lower-income families have lived for generations. New Yorkers with legal incomes who can afford to pay rent are illegally being denied housing because landlords don’t approve of where their income originates.
This year, two important changes suggest that we may be able to eradicate this practice for good.
First, the New York State budget included a provision to make source-of-income discrimination illegal statewide, thanks to advocacy by state leaders and the BanIncomeBiasNY campaign. Even though it was already outlawed in New York City, the absence of a state law confused landlords and tenants alike; many didn’t even know whether the practice was legal or illegal in their area. On top of that, limited oversight and underhanded tactics made it difficult to prove discrimination took place, making enforcement nearly impossible.
Second, the new law strengthened the existing one in New York City, which previously only applied to buildings containing six or more units. In Brooklyn, small walk-up buildings that make up much of the borough’s rental housing stock are no longer exempt from the rule, making thousands of homes available to people using non-wage income to pay rent for the first time.
These victories took years of work in the state legislature and required leadership in both houses that prioritized tenant rights. Signing this protection into law is a major step forward, but there is still more to do. Statewide, more than half a million low-income residents use some form of federal rental assistance to pay for housing. With the new law in place, New York must devote time and resources to education and enforcement efforts in order to follow through on its commitment to ensure every family can live in the community of their choice.
The responsibility for enforcement statewide now lies with the NYS Division of Human Rights, and it’s imperative that it is done right. Landlords must not be able to feign ignorance when confronted with a claim of discrimination, and tenants should know their rights when filling out an apartment application. A simple online search for available Brooklyn apartments should not yield pages and pages of “SORRY, NO SECTION 8.”
Source-of-income bias is often a proxy for other types of illegal discrimination. Those denied housing despite their ability to pay are more likely to be members of marginalized ethnic or racial groups, people with disabilities or single mothers. The practice reinforces racial, ethnic and economic segregation, as people and families using non-wage income are often left with few housing choices.
No one with a legal income should be denied a home they can afford. As we’ve learned over the past decade in New York City, a law on its own will not solve this issue. Statewide legislation was the necessary first step, and it gives New York an opportunity to focus on education and enforcement efforts that will turn the promise of finally ending source of income discrimination into a reality.
Walter Mosley is a member of the New York State Assembly.
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