Willow Lake Apartments, a 72-unit complex in Smithtown, has agreed to pay $19,500 to a local nonprofit to settle a complaint that it discriminated against prospective renters who sought to use Section 8 housing vouchers to pay their rent.
Long Island Housing Services, a Bohemia-based fair housing agency, said Willow Lake had told one of its housing testers, who was posing as a renter, that it requires applicants to have a minimum credit score of 680 and earn three times the annual rent, or $90,000.
Such a requirement violates state and local Human Rights Laws which prohibit discrimination based on the source of a person’s income, LIHS said. Housing providers cannot turn away renters because they plan to use a government source of income, such as a Section 8 housing voucher, Social Security payment or disability income to pay their rent.
“Those vouchers are dependent on the market accepting them,” said Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services. “When landlords in the market refuse to accept them, then our tax dollars are going to waste. People don’t get housed, and the money that’s in the program can’t be used, so it defeats the whole purpose of the program."
WHAT TO KNOW
- Willow Lake Apartments in Smithtown agreed to a $19,500 settlement with Long Island Housing Services to resolve allegations of discrimination.
- An investigation from LIHS found that the apartment complex had told fair housing testers posing as renters that it wouldn't accept Section 8 housing vouchers as payment.
- LIHS said the landlord's income requirements violated state and local laws by effectively excluding voucher holders, who have lower incomes and use government funds to pay rent.
As for income requirements, the state Division of Human Rights has published guidance that landlords may not apply them to tenants who plan to use housing vouchers if 70% to 100% of their rent will be paid by the vouchering agency.
“Persons receive vouchers because they have low income and lack wealth,” the state Division of Human Rights wrote in guidance published in 2020. “Unreasonable wealth requirements could exclude everyone with a voucher and negate the protections of the law.”
Wilder noted the Section 8 voucher program provides funding specifically set aside for recipients' housing payments and the federal government vets how much a person can afford to pay given their income.
In another call to Willow Lake, an LIHS fair housing tester posing as a renter was told “we do not accept Section 8.”
LIHS also alleged that Willow Lake discriminated on the basis of family status because it refused to accept payment through a voucher program designed to help families.
The fair housing testers had said they were participating in a program now known as Making Moves, which provides housing mobility coaching and financial assistance to families with children younger than 18 to help them move to areas with greater economic and educational opportunities. The Making Moves program is run by Community Development Long Island.
As part of the settlement, Willow Lake also agreed to adopt a non-discriminatory fair housing policy and participate in fair housing training. Management for the apartment complex did not respond to messages seeking comment.
LIHS’ complaint came about as part of a 2021 investigation into whether local landlords were discriminating based on the source of a person’s income.
“We often have to go out and do market testing to make sure these opportunities are available for people,” Wilder said. “We’re not getting complaints often because the people who are being discriminated against may not be aware of their rights yet.”
The testing was funded under the Eliminating Barriers to Housing in New York program through the state attorney general’s office. Attorney General Letitia James announced in May 2020 that she was making a $4.5 million grant to the program, which is overseen by the Manhattan-based nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners.
Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal includes a program that would address discrimination against renters using Section 8 housing vouchers. She has directed the Division of Human Rights to set up an early intervention unit that would step in to help renters if they had been denied access to housing.
“If there is a focus on using the powers of government to have the discussion quickly so the unit goes to the person it should have gone to in the first place, that would be a good thing,” Wilder said.
A spokesman for DHR said the state agency "remains committed to eliminating source of income discrimination from our communities and removing barriers to housing for individuals and families who receive housing assistance."