Tessa Hultz, CEO of the Long Island Board of Realtors,...

Tessa Hultz, CEO of the Long Island Board of Realtors, speaks to Newsday on June 9. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

The Long Island Board of Realtors kicked off a campaign Thursday to educate the real estate industry on fair housing issues with an initial focus on the rights of renters who use government assistance to pay for housing.

State and local law prohibits property owners and real estate agents from refusing to rent or sell to prospective tenants or buyers using income from government assistance, such as the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program. Other forms of income that are protected include child support and alimony payments, unemployment insurance and Social Security income. LIBOR has compiled resources for industry professionals on a new website, homeforallofus.org.

Given the relatively recent addition of source-of-income protections — New York state law was amended to add them in 2019 — LIBOR thought the website could help owners, realtors, condo associations and co-op boards understand their obligations, said Tessa Hultz, the board’s CEO. Local laws prohibiting housing discrimination based on a person's source of income took effect in 2007 in Nassau County and 2015 in Suffolk County.

“I would speculate there’s a lack of awareness this is actually a protected class in New York,” Hultz said. “There is a stigma associated with public assistance, and part of why we wanted to do this campaign is to educate. The stigmas are based on things that just aren’t true.”

Fair housing groups have highlighted source of income discrimination as an illegal barrier that has made it harder for renters to find housing. In May, the Manhattan-based nonprofit Housing Rights Initiative filed a lawsuit against 124 real estate brokers, property managers and owners alleging they engaged in discrimination against renters seeking to pay with government-provided rental assistance or refused to allow those individuals to apply for apartments.

The nonprofit filed the complaint in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, naming defendants such as Douglas Elliman, Keller Williams Realty of Greater Nassau County and RE/MAX Edge in Brooklyn, after conducting an investigation that included using civil rights testers to contact housing providers and see if they adhered to fair housing laws.

A spokeswoman for RE/MAX said the company is “committed to supporting housing for everyone equally.”

“Though each RE/MAX franchise is an independently owned and operated business, if any RE/MAX agent is acting in a way that is not in accordance with the law or our values, we expect our franchise owners to immediately rectify the situation,” the spokeswoman said in a statement to Newsday.

A spokeswoman for Douglas Elliman declined to comment on the lawsuit, which is pending. Keller Williams did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

In the past, some landlords have had an unfair view toward Section 8 tenants as less desirable tenants, Dawn Lott, executive director of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission said during a fair housing forum earlier this month in Mineola.

“It’s the prejudice as it relates to a recipient of Section 8, and it’s really unfounded,” Lott said.

LIBOR’s website includes information for landlords on their legal obligations and potential benefits from accepting housing vouchers, such as a reliable income stream backed by the government. Violators of the law can face up to $250,000 in civil penalties per violation as well as possible compensatory damages to tenants. The Department of State can also take action against the license of a real estate agent who engages in discriminatory conduct.

Property owners are allowed to require income and credit history qualifications, according to information provided on the new website, but they cannot do so in a way that “frustrates the purpose of source-of-income laws,” LIBOR wrote. That means, if a voucher covers 100% of a tenant’s rent, it would be unreasonable to deny the person’s rental application because of their credit history or income.

Hultz said agents serve an important role in educating not just landlords, but also investors buying rental properties who might not be aware of their legal obligations.

The Human Rights Initiative's investigation and Newsday’s Long Island Divided series contributed to LIBOR’s interest in creating a website where real estate organizations can learn more about fair housing, Hultz said.

“We want to further fair housing for everyone on Long Island, and that means not just looking at residential purchasing and selling,” Hultz said. “If we become aware of an issue within the rental market that relates to fair housing, we need to look at that as well.”

 Clarification: This article was updated to include information about the passage of local laws prohibiting housing discrimination based on a person's source of income. 

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