Despite efforts on fair housing, Westchester dogged by discrimination (The Journal News)
Michael Sutherland, Research & Policy Associate at Housing Rights Initiative
April 15, 2021
Even after a lengthy legal battle to protect fair housing in Westchester, an investigation by our organization into brokers and landlords shows that the county is still plagued by housing discrimination.
In 2006, a landmark lawsuit was filed against Westchester County claiming that the county falsely stated it was meeting fair housing obligations in order to receive millions of dollars in federal funding. By making the claim that they were taking necessary steps to eliminate barriers to fair housing, the county was defrauding the government.
In 2009, Westchester signed a consent decree which obligated the county to take affirmative steps to overcome barriers to fair housing, ending the litigation. Despite this important lawsuit, barriers to fair housing in Westchester continue to exist, and the fight against housing segregation and discrimination in the county is not over. Brokers and landlords are putting up barriers to prevent housing voucher holders—who are overwhelmingly people of color and people with disabilities—from living all over Westchester.
In March, our national housing watchdog organization, Housing Rights Initiative, filed a lawsuit against 88 landlords and brokers in New York City for discriminating against prospective tenants with Section 8 vouchers. Our organization trained, equipped, and dispatched investigators who recorded hundreds of phone calls posing as prospective tenants with vouchers to see if brokers and landlords would accept them as they are required to do by law. The prevalence of voucher discrimination in New York City prompted us to conduct a sweeping investigation of Westchester. And what we found was systematic discrimination against voucher holders at the hands of brokers and landlords. As we uncovered, discrimination against voucher holders isn’t just a problem in New York City, it is a deeply rooted problem in Westchester, New York State and across the country. Our hope is that this investigation will highlight the importance of combating this pervasive issue. It’s important to remember what it actually means when brokers and landlords discriminate against voucher holders and the cost it has on countless vulnerable families. The average Section 8 voucher holder’s income is $13,726, and voucher holders pay roughly 30% of their income towards rent. This incredible boon means voucher holders have more money for food, healthcare, childcare—meaning a far better quality of life. For example, a 2008 study showed that families that use vouchers spend 40% more on food a month. Freeing up thousands of dollars of income for families to spend on other vital household expenses is a game changer. However, the benefits of a voucher are only realized if voucher holders aren’t discriminated against and are able to find housing. Voucher holders only have a set amount of time to find a place to live before their voucher expires and goes to another family. Without a voucher, these families are at the whim of the market, and it becomes far more difficult for them to find a place to live within their budget—placing them at risk of homelessness. Brokers and landlords hold the lives of voucher holders in their hands. In order to effectively combat discrimination, our local governments and Albany need to step up to the plate and provide our fair housing agencies and fair housing non-profit organizations with adequate funding and resources to create a robust enforcement mechanism and conduct comprehensive discrimination testing. Our government must do more to protect tenants from discrimination. In addition to pushing our government to fight this issue, Housing Rights Initiative will continue to educate the public about this form of discrimination, and combat it however it can. Because in many cases, the only thing that stands in the way of a voucher holder obtaining housing is the discriminatory practices of a broker or landlord. Michael Sutherland is a Research and Policy Associate at Housing Rights Initiative.