Lawsuit claims 20 Boston-area landlords, brokers discriminated against poor

A fair-housing watchdog group filed a lawsuit Wednesday against 20 landlords and real estate agents in Greater Boston, alleging they illegally discriminated against low-income potential tenants by refusing to accept government-subsidized housing vouchers.

The 51-page lawsuit brought in Suffolk Superior Court by the Housing Rights Initiative claims the defendants “brazenly” defied state law and names both owners of small properties and large real estate companies such as the Charlesgate Realty Group, Concept Properties, and Harvard Ave. Realty, court records show.

The lawsuit, filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights and Handley Farah & Anderson PLLC, alleges that in June a real estate agent from Lynn named Sandra Suarez told someone posing as a prospective tenant for an apartment on Beacon Hill that the owners would not accept a Section 8 voucher, which helps people with low incomes pay part of their rent.

This scenario repeated itself on numerous occasions across the area, the lawsuit alleges.

“Defendants’ refusal to accept vouchers impedes these families’ search for housing, prolonging the time they must spend in homeless shelters, on the streets, or in substandard dwellings,” the organization said. “This not only endangers and destabilizes families and children, but also restricts the opportunity for those families to live in their neighborhood of choice.”

Suarez said she had not been notified about the lawsuit and had “no idea where these allegations are coming from.”

“There’s no way I would discriminate. I grew up low-income my whole life,” Suarez said. “My life’s work was dedicated to helping specifically families in Section 8 and low-income become self-sufficient. This is completely the opposite of anything I stand for or would do.”

The co-owners of the Beacon Hill apartment, Ladd M. Martin Jr. and Russell L. Peterson, and the other 17 defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Housing Rights Initiative, which has offices in New York and Boston, called the lawsuit “a first of its kind in Massachusetts.” In 2022, the nonprofit filed a similar lawsuit against more than 120 New York brokers, real estate companies, and property owners, the New York Times reported.

The Massachusetts suit asks the court to order the defendants to begin accepting tenants with housing vouchers, reimburse the Housing Rights Initiative’s expenses, and award it punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

The alleged discrimination helps keep Boston racially segregated, the organization said.

“Bostonians of color are overwhelmingly concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods with fewer public resources than similarly situated white families,” the lawsuit said. “Voucher discrimination perpetuates this unacceptable reality by limiting the options available to voucher holders outside of those neighborhoods.”

The suit is based on an investigation by the group that relied on methods for establishing discrimination that have been used since the civil rights era, according to court filings.

“Testers” for the organization, posing as prospective tenants, contacted landlords and brokers expressing interest in apartment listings and were met with enthusiastic responses until they asked if the landlords would accept Section 8 vouchers to help cover the rent, records show.

“Over and over, Defendants responded — in writing — that they would not,” according to the lawsuit.

The document contains multiple screenshots of text message exchanges between testers and brokers who say they cannot accept Section 8 vouchers.

In 2020, a study by Suffolk University Law School showed evidence of discrimination based on vouchers in 86 percent of interactions with housing providers, the organization said.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at Follow him @jeremycfox.

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