Editor’s note: This is a first in a series of stories on the state of the city. Our in-depth reports on key issues will continue through late October. Today’s story assesses City Hall’s track record of enforcing its fair housing law.
For years housing advocates in Buffalo were frustrated by the city’s failure to enforce its fair housing law.
Now, with better options in county and state laws, those advocates are sidestepping the city entirely.
Representatives from the nonprofit Housing Opportunities Made Equal said they saw some effort from the city shortly after Investigative Post reported in 2018 on the Brown administration’s failure to enforce the anti-discrimination statute.
Working with the city, HOME was able to resolve four open cases of housing discrimination, the organization’s attorney, Daniel Corbitt, said.
“I think that there was a concerted effort by the city to address some of the cases after [the stories ran] that had been pending before the fair housing officer for a while,” he said.
In the four cases resolved since 2018, the city issued more than $19,000 in settlements for complainants and required some landlords to take training classes on the law and housing discrimination. That’s more settlements than in the previous 12 years the law had been on the books, according to a document provided by Corbitt.
In 2018, Mayor Byron Brown defended the city’s enforcement efforts, describing them as “very aggressive” despite the low number of cases resolved.
Brown did not respond to a request for an interview for this story. Nor has the city provided documents requested under the state Freedom of Information Law on fair housing cases filed since 2018.
HOME and other housing advocates now pursue cases using county and state laws, which offer more robust protections for renters facing discrimination, said DeAnna Eason, HOME’s executive director.
“The county process is really better,” Eason said. “It provides more protection for the city of Buffalo — not just the city of Buffalo, but for the county, obviously.”
As reported in the original Investigative Post series, landlords continued to discriminate against renters with federal Section 8 housing vouchers after the city law was passed in 2006, Brown’s first year in office. Landlords would tell applicants they would refuse to accept the Section 8 vouchers, sometimes including the discriminatory policy in advertisements for their rentals.
The city law prohibits discrimination based on form of payment, but almost none of the cases brought to the city by HOME and other advocates were acted on for more than a decade. Between 2006 and 2018 just a handful of the 25 cases brought to the city by HOME had been resolved.
For example, Gloria Adkins brought a case through HOME in 2016, but her claim was never resolved. Three years later, the city claimed the statute of limitations made her case moot.
“The longer it goes on, from a practical standpoint, the more difficult it is to have any outcome, resolution in these cases,” Corbitt said.
According to Eason, Adkins’ case was not the only time inaction by the city led to a discrimination complaint being disqualified because it took too long.
She hopes that HOME and other housing advocates will no longer have to bring bad news to clients with the state and county laws now in place.
“We don’t want any more issues, lack of timeliness,” she said.
The city failed to follow through on the law, despite the persistent work of documenting and investigating claims by advocates, Eason said.
“The Buffalo Fair Housing Ordinance was not enforced,” she said.
Housing advocates are encouraged that the state and county statutes will be more effective than the city’s.
Even so, they know they will have to be vigilant, and, Corbitt said, some red flags are already popping up with the state law. There is some worry that the staff dedicated by the New York State Division on Human Rights, the agency charged with enforcing the state law, will be overwhelmed by the number of cases coming in.
A spokesperson from the Division of Human Rights said in an email that the agency has resolved 105 of the 187 complaints statewide related to discrimination based on source of income, collecting nearly $70,000 in settlements since the law went into effect in 2019.
“It’s great to have these laws passed,” Corbitt said. “That’s the first step. If you don’t have the resources in place to ensure that there’s adequate enforcement behind them, they’re really not worth the paper that they’re printed on.”