Long Island real estate companies face housing discrimination lawsuit
Eleven local real estate companies and brokers face allegations they refused to rent Nassau County apartments to potential tenants who sought to pay with government housing vouchers, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Nassau County Supreme Court by the nonprofit Housing Rights Initiative.
The lawsuit is based upon an undercover investigation performed by HRI, in which testers called real estate brokers and landlords to inquire about apartment listings posted online and asked if they would accept housing choice vouchers, also known as Section 8. One of the defendants is Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Laffey International Realty, a Williston Park-based franchisee of Warren Buffett's conglomerate.
The other defendants are Baxter Real Estate, Rowan Realty, 137 Post Avenue LLC, DeSimone Real Estate, Kaya Homes, Laffey Real Estate LLC, Coldwell Banker American Homes, Jenny Medina, Kings Homes & Associates and Anderson Minaya.
The lawsuit describes calls made by investigators from 2020 to 2022, in which representatives for real estate brokerages or landlords told the callers a landlord would not accept a housing voucher as a form of payment.
What to know
- A lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that 11 real estate companies and brokers involved in leasing apartments in Nassau County said potential renters couldn't use government vouchers to pay.
- The lawsuit was filed in Nassau County Supreme Court by Housing Rights Initiative, a Manhattan-based nonprofit, which used undercover investigators posing as prospective renters to document the conduct.
- The alleged conduct would violate state and local laws prohibiting landlords and other real estate entities from discriminating against people using lawful sources of income for housing.
“The refusals to accept vouchers were pervasive and egregious, ranging from flat-out refusals to insinuations about the worthiness of voucher holders as tenants,” attorneys for HRI wrote in the complaint.
Since 2007, Nassau County law has prohibited discrimination based on the source of a person’s income. In 2019, New York State amended its Human Rights Law to address source-of-income protections, which cover people seeking to use child support, Social Security benefits, Section 8 vouchers, and other types of income, to pay rent.
“This lawsuit ... doesn't just expose housing discrimination in Long Island, but a lack of housing enforcement in New York State,” Aaron Carr, founder and executive director of the Manhattan-based Housing Rights Initiative, said in a statement.
Carr said the New York Department of State, which licenses real estate agents, “should deal with the systematic issue of housing discrimination by systematically revoking the brokers’ licenses of those who engage in it.”
In two separate calls in 2020 and 2022, the lawsuit alleges Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Laffey International Realty agents told prospective renters the landlords they were representing would not accept housing vouchers as payment. A person who answered the firm's office phone Thursday afternoon said he was not aware of the lawsuit.
Omar Baxter, the corporate broker at Baxter Real Estate in Rosedale, said Newsday’s call was the first he had heard about the allegations, and he was not familiar with the August 2020 rental listing in Valley Stream described in the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges a representative of Baxter told a tester, “No, she doesn’t accept programs,” when asked whether the caller could use a housing voucher to pay rent.
“I have no knowledge of this,” Baxter said. “That has never been a practice of Baxter Real Estate.”
The lawsuit alleges real estate agent Jenny Medina told a potential renter in an October 2020 phone call, “Yeah, the owner’s not taking any programs. Sorry.” She denied making those statements when reached by Newsday Thursday afternoon.
“I don’t recall telling them that,” Medina told Newsday. “I know that that’s against the law to say something like that, so I would not say that."
Other defendants in the lawsuit did not immediately respond to Newsday's request for comment Thursday afternoon.
Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services in Bohemia, said real estate professionals are responsible for understanding that housing providers must accept all lawful sources of income.
Wilder’s nonprofit is not involved in HRI’s case but has brought its own lawsuits against local housing providers in the past. He noted denying voucher holders housing has a “ripple effect” that can lead them to seek less stable forms of housing, such as shelters.
“Vouchers don’t work unless the people in the market accept them,” he said. “The vouchers become useless, the tax dollars are wasted and the problems they’re trying to solve become unsolvable.”
Similar suit in New York City
The Housing Choice Voucher Program is federally funded, and in Nassau County it is administered by the Nassau County Office of Housing. Very low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities can qualify for vouchers, which provide a housing subsidy based on their income that is paid directly to the landlord. Renters then pay the balance not covered by the subsidy.
Housing Rights Initiative said the properties it inquired about were located in Glen Cove, Valley Stream, Port Washington, Westbury, Great Neck, Island Park, Hewlett, Farmingdale, Lynbrook, Hempstead, New Hyde Park, Mineola and Woodbury. It sought units with rents that were below the voucher program’s maximum threshold.
In February, a federal judge allowed an HRI lawsuit against 77 landlords and real estate firms in New York City to move forward over similar claims that they wouldn’t rent to potential tenants attempting to use housing vouchers, Gothamist reported.
HRI’s lawsuit seeks a judgment against the defendants for source-of-income discrimination and an order for the defendants to stop refusing to rent to voucher holders, as well as monetary damages, attorneys’ fees and punitive damages.
Housing Rights Initiative is represented by attorneys Matthew K. Handley and Martha E. Guarnieri of Handley Farah & Anderson as well as Hempstead attorney Frederick K. Brewington.
With James T. Madore
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story had Housing Rights Initiative naming Homes by Mara as a defendant. HRI said Friday it included the firm in error, due to a case of mistaken identity involving an agent with the same name. HRI said it is withdrawing the claim against Homes by Mara.