Settlements Resolve Claims of Housing Discrimination

Following a joint investigation by Suffolk Law’s Accelerator Practice, Housing Discrimination Testing Program and the Attorney General’s Office, several South Shore real estate brokers and agents have agreed to pay up to $110,000 in settlement fees and attend fair housing training. The investigations uncovered systemic housing discrimination in the South Shore, an area that is experiencing increasing rents and homelessness.

Over about two years a woman with a housing voucher attempted unsuccessfully to rent an apartment for her and her two disabled children, during which she sought the help of the Law School’s staff and students. The federal government’s Section 8 voucher program helps low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities afford rental housing in the private market.

“Imagine you’re looking for an apartment,” says Bill Berman, director of Suffolk’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program. “You’ve got disabled kids that you need to bring along or find care for, and apartment after apartment the rental agents ghost you after they find out you have a voucher. Finding a rental is hard enough without facing a two year ordeal and a legal battle to secure something as basic as a place to live.”

The Law School’s housing team initiated fair housing tests that involved 13 South Shore real estate agents, several of which the woman had contacted. Roughly half were found to be discriminating against voucher holders and in some cases families with children by ignoring calls, cutting off communication, increasing the rent, or stating that the apartment was already rented when it wasn’t.

“Families looking for a decent, affordable place to call home shouldn’t be turned down just because they have children,” said Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “HUD supports Suffolk Law School’s efforts to ensure that residents of the Boston area have access to available housing, free from discrimination.”

The school’s testing program sends out pairs of testers trained and deployed to pose as interested renters with closely matching characteristics. In this round of testing, one tester was using a voucher for payment and the other was not.

The state’s Attorney General’s Office initiated several separate enforcement measures as a result of the testing. Suffolk’s Accelerator assisted the woman in filing a complaint in housing court against one of the agents and the property owners. The settlements in the cases will result in the woman receiving $41,000 in financial compensation.

In recognition of the challenges faced by Massachusetts residents who rely on public assistance in securing housing, AG Healey issued a new guide in English and Spanish to educate tenants, landlords and those in the real estate industry on their rights and obligations under state and federal fair housing laws.

“Rental assistance programs are critical to the economic security of our most vulnerable residents, particularly people of color and people with disabilities. Unfortunately, this type of widespread discrimination is representative of the barriers many face in the search for safe and affordable housing,” AG Healey said. “Housing providers cannot use the requirements of these programs as an excuse to refuse to rent. We will continue to hold accountable those who deny residents access to housing based on bias.”

A lawyer in Suffolk’s Accelerator, James Matthews, said the investigation provides a powerful illustration of how insidious discrimination impacts real families. “Our client and her family were turned away from numerous properties on the South Shore just because they had a voucher. It’s hard to overstate the extreme stress of being denied a fair and appropriate process for finding a home. This joint enforcement effort sends a clear message to housing providers: Don’t engage in this type of illegal conduct.”

Testing in Greater Boston

A separate Suffolk study in Greater Boston of 50 different randomly selected rental properties, released in July 2020, found that almost ninety percent of the testers who indicated they were using a voucher faced discriminatory behavior from a rental agent, for example:

  • cutting off communication with the tester
  • not offering a rental application
  • not setting up an appointment to visit properties

In a number of tests, the broker told the tester outright that the owner was not accepting voucher participants. “You understand right? I mean, talking to you, you sound totally normal,” said one agent. “I mean a lot of people with Section 8 aren’t the greatest people, so sometimes people can be prejudicial about that,” the agent added.

Adding to the frustration of securing an apartment, voucher-holders are on a tight timeline before their voucher expires. Substantive discipline of rental agents who discriminate is rare and the state legislature should make it easier to suspend offending brokers, the study argues.

“The promise of the Section 8 program is a hollow one if a voucher holder is turned away from renting a property 9 out of 10 times just because they are trying to use a voucher–and this in a state where this kind of discrimination is explicitly illegal,” said Berman.