Progress on fair housing front

Editor’s note: This is the last story Charlotte Keith wrote for Investigative Post. She joined The Philadelphia Inquirer in July.

A recent change in state law offers new protections for thousands of Western New York residents who receive federal housing vouchers, offering a way to pursue discrimination complaints without relying on the City of Buffalo’s flawed system.

The new measure — included in the state budget that passed in March — means landlords can no longer refuse to rent to someone because they rely on government assistance to help pay rent.

Buffalo already had a local law in place prohibiting discrimination based on a potential tenant’s source of income. But, as Investigative Post reported last summer, the law was hobbled by a lack of enforcement. A backlog of complaints developed. Some sat, unaddressed, for years. Others were unfairly dismissed. But for years, this was the only option city residents had to file complaints based on “source of income” discrimination.

The addition of source of income protections to the state’s human rights law “breaks down a significant barrier,” said Daniel Corbitt, associate director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a local fair housing organization. At the state level, Corbitt said, there’s already a “robust enforcement mechanism that’s worked in the past.”

A similar law was passed by the Legislature in 2010 but vetoed by Gov. David Patterson, who cited the “the heavy burden it would place on small New York property owners” and the extra cost of investigating more discrimination complaints.

Housing advocates, Section 8 administrators, and low-income tenants say “source of income” discrimination is ubiquitous. On Craigslist, Facebook, and apartment listing websites like Trulia and Zillow, it’s easy to find advertisements that explicitly warn: “No Section 8,” “CASH tenants only,” and “We are not set up to accept rental assistance.”

In a report delivered to the Common Council last November, Harold Cardwell, the city’s fair housing officer, largely glossed over the problems with the city’s handling of discrimination complaints. Council President Darius Pridgen asked for the report after Investigative Post reported that dozens of discrimination complaints had languished for years, often never even receiving a determination. By law, the Council should receive an annual report on the city’s handling of housing discrimination complaints, but those reports had never been filed before.

“Are you receiving any complaints on the timeframe?” Pridgen asked, referring to the speed at which investigations are completed.

“No, I am not,” Cardwell replied.

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In fact, housing advocacy organizations have repeatedly complained to Cardwell, his predecessors, and the corporation counsel’s office about the delays in investigating and pursuing discrimination cases.

Asked by Pridgen how long it takes to get through the average case, Cardwell replied, “It can take up to a year or two, sometimes longer.”

Cardwell’s report did, however, concede that some cases have fallen through the cracks, listing three as being “reinvestigated.”

“When compliance cannot be achieved through these means, formal action must sometimes be taken,” he wrote.

So far, the city has done this just once in 12 years, and only after Investigative Post began making inquiries about the enforcement of the law.

The city has resolved some recent complaints more promptly, settling two earlier this year, Corbitt said — including one dating back to 2016. Last year, the city took legal action against a landlord who had violated the law, for the first time ever.

Last April, Erie County passed a fair housing law that offers protections similar to the city’s law. A five-member fair housing board will meet quarterly to hear cases referred by Housing Opportunities Made Equal.

One difference between the city and county laws: The county protects agreements between landlords and the Erie County Department of Social Services that replace a security deposit. If a tenant damages an apartment, the landlord can file an application with Social Services to recover the cost of the damage. Since Section 8 only covers regular rent payments, not security deposits, many low-income tenants rely on these agreements to fill the gap. But several years ago, city attorneys decided that such agreements are not protected by the fair housing law. Those agreements are explicitly protected by the county law.

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New research underscores how difficult it is for Section 8 voucher holders to find housing in Buffalo specifically.

Researchers at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council found that in nearly all of the 50 largest metropolitan areas, families with children who received Section 8 vouchers were clustered in poor neighborhoods — even though plenty of affordable apartments were available in more affluent neighborhoods.

“Local patterns of racial segregation and past and present discriminatory policies are likely driving higher concentrations of voucher-affordable units in high poverty neighborhoods than would otherwise be the case,” the report found.

“Families using Section 8 aren’t clustered in poor neighborhoods because that’s where all the affordable housing is — it goes way beyond that,” said Brian Knudsen, one of the study’s authors.

In Buffalo, that disparity is particularly stark. Sixty-one percent of families with vouchers live in poor neighborhoods, researchers found, even though only 35 percent of apartments that are affordable for voucher-holders are in those neighborhoods. In Buffalo, the discrepancy between where families can afford to live, and where they actually do, was among the largest of all 50 metropolitan areas included in the study.

“Policymakers in the Buffalo metro area could certainly work harder to give families with children who use vouchers more choices about where they can live,” Knudsen said.