Housing Rights Initiative files historic lawsuit

The non-profit watchdog organization Housing Rights Initiative (HRI) has filed a historic lawsuit against 124 real estate companies and brokers following an undercover sting operation HRI says uncovered blatant illegal discrimination.

In the largest housing discrimination lawsuit by number of defendants in the history of New York City, HRI alleged that top real-estate companies refused to rent to vulnerable tenants who attempted to apply for housing use government-provided rental assistance vouchers.

HRI founder and Executive Director, Aaron Carr, said the groups undercover investigation saw voucher applicants call and request housing tours and applications from top real estate companies across the city including Douglas Elliman, Coldwell Bankers, and RE/MAX, brazenly violated New York State and New York City human rights laws that prevent owners and brokers from discriminating against current and prospective tenants based on lawful source of income.

Housing discrimination is alive and well in New York City,” said Carr on May 25 following a virtual press conference. “These landlords, these brokers, this real estate industry, factually, undeniably, and unequivocally broke the law, and they broke it with reckless abandon. The one and only solution to homelessness is housing, but until real estate opens its doors to homeless New Yorkers, New York’s homelessness crisis will continue unabated forever.”

In New York City, it is illegal to refuse to rent to individuals who receive government assistance through housing vouchers or other avenues, yet HRI says these real estate companies would learn of a prospective tenants voucher status and would deny them the right to apply for apartments or housing, sometimes even hanging up on prospective tenants after learning of their voucher status.

Every day, we hear from New Yorkers who are tired of being turned away or ghosted just because they plan to use a housing voucher to help pay their rent,” said Elizabeth B., Unlock NYC Leadership Collective member, a group that worked with HRI to support tenants and include them in the lawsuit. “Housing searches should take days, not years. City government has the power to change this by enforcing the Human Rights Law and ensuring the rights of voucher holders are protected. Instead, they set us up for failure, then blame us if we can’t find housing.”

HRI assembled a team of investigators to pose as CityFHEPs voucher recipients who then searched the internet for housing listings for voucher eligible apartments, and then proceeded to call these real estate companies to request viewings. According to HRI, in many instances, these real estate companies and brokers systematically discriminated against the HRI undercover investigators.

“For example, on four separate occasions, one of the largest brokerage firms in America, Douglas Elliman, acting as an agent for landlords, illegally denied housing to our undercover investigators,” a statement from HRI read, including a clip of one of the undercover recordings.

HRI states that the goal of this lawsuit is to force real estate companies to abandon their discriminatory practices and open their listings to voucher holders amidst a homelessness and affordable housing crisis that is forcing many New Yorkers to remain in shelters.

“It hurts when I can’t live in the neighborhood I grew up in anymore,” said voucher holder and member at Neighbors Together, Charisma White who was discriminated against due to her voucher status. “Source of income discrimination is pushing me out of a community that feels like home, and no one is being held responsible. I hope this lawsuit will show people how bad this kind of discrimination really is.”

amNew York has reached out to Douglas Elliman and Coldwell Bankers and is awaiting comment.

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