human rights

Landlords Ghost Apartment Hunters When Housing Vouchers Come Up

Irma Troche said she has been having trouble finding a new apartment with a Section 8 voucher.
Irma Troche said she has been having trouble finding a new apartment with a Section 8 voucher. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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A monthslong quest to get Bronx retiree Irma Troche an apartment has followed a pattern, her two daughters say: They find a place, reach out to the landlord or broker, and then are asked about her income.

When it’s revealed Troche, 68, is relying on a Section 8 housing voucher, the correspondence almost always ends abruptly, daughter Madeline Familia told THE CITY.

Familia suspects her mother is being discriminated against over the source of her rental funds. Troche has less than a month to find a new home before she has to leave her current apartment in Castle Hill, where she’s lived for four years.

Silent Treatment is Illegal

Though the rent payments are assured, some landlords or brokers appear hesitant to move forward with prospective tenants with Section 8 vouchers, seemingly choosing to go silent on people who use them — rather than outright rejection.

Both responses can be considered violations of New York City’s Human Rights Law — which bars discrimination based on a prospective tenant’s use of a Section 8 voucher — as well as the state’s human rights law, expanded this year to bar source-of-income discrimination.

Familia and Troche shared email correspondence with THE CITY that shows how the conversation stops when vouchers are brought up.

“That’s their way of saying they don’t take it without legally being penalized,” said Familia, a publicist who lives in West Harlem.

“It’s been happening quite often, to the point that we can’t find any leads on an apartment,” she added.

Troche, who speaks limited English, worries she could end up homeless or have to leave her children and find a place to live in Puerto Rico, after 50 years in New York City.

“I’d be just another homeless person in this country,” Troche said, tears rolling down her face.

Calls to Commission Rise

Troche and her family are not alone, city officials say. The City Commission on Human Rights reports it received close to 500 queries related to source-of-income discrimination in the fiscal year that ended June 30, up from around 330 in the year prior. The upward trend may partly reflect increased outreach and publicity from the commission about the law, officials said.

In the last fiscal year, the commission details in its annual report, it intervened 206 times in response to source-of-income calls and launched six investigations. The commission also conducted 245 tests and pursued nearly a hundred claims against brokers and landlords, including 14 that alleged patterns of discrimination.

Irma Troche is being pushed out of her Castle Hill building.
Irma Troche is being pushed out of her Castle Hill building, Nov. 15, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“Ghosting” would-be tenants like Troche is common, said Stephanie Rudolph, director of the City Commission on Human Rights’s five-person unit that investigates source-of-income discrimination claims and levies penalties for those found to have violated the law.

“This is a really rotten form of discrimination,” said Councilmember Brad Lander of Brooklyn, who sponsored the 2015 bill that enabled the commission to conduct testing for source-of-income discrimination.

“It makes it extra hard for families who are most in need of a stable place to live to find one,” he added.

Most brokers and property managers who ghosted Troche and her daughters didn’t immediately return calls for comment. One salesperson, who didn’t want to be named, insisted they “treat everybody the same.”

Masking Other Discrimination

Why would a landlord reject a tenant whose rent payments are guaranteed by the government? Sometimes discrimination against a prospective tenant’s source of income is “a proxy for other, more historical forms of discrimination,” said Rudolph, such as age, race or disability.

As her office pursues cases, “There are just very bad stereotypes that landlords and brokers share with me,” she added.

Fear that a program may terminate payments or that a property won’t pass an inspection required for federal subsidies also arise as concerns, though Rudolph called those fears “overblown.”

“We listen, and then we explain their obligations,” she said. “Not complying with the law could be a very expensive business decision.”

In a case from September, a management company overseeing about 40 buildings had to pay a $20,000 penalty for refusing voucher holders.

Source-of-income discrimination has been illegal for more than a decade, since a City Council bill sponsored by then-Brooklyn Councilmember Bill de Blasio made it a violation of the city’s human rights laws.

Still, this kind of discrimination is “exceptionally difficult to root out,” said Jaqueline Simone, a policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless.

It also can have critical consequences: “This is definitely something that can cause someone to become homeless, and it can impede their ability to leave homelessness and move into permanent housing,” Simone said.

Source-of-income discrimination often goes unreported, experts agreed, particularly when a tenant is feeling pressure to find an apartment before their lease is up, as in Troche’s case.

Suspected source of income discrimination can be reported by calling 311 or contacting the CCHR directly at 718-722-3131. The commission will investigate “as soon as we hear that someone is having difficulty,” Rudolph said.

‘Injustice Hurts the Most’

Although Troche and her daughters said they reported their discrimination claim to the proper authorities, they say they did not hear from human rights officials until THE CITY reached out for this story.

“The existing laws and protections are not always enforced to the full extent that they should be,” said Simone. “It’s a lot to ask for people to be following up and reporting discrimination.”

Lander, who said he’s been satisfied with the commission’s efforts to help address source of income discrimination, agreed.

Irma Troche is considering packing up her family memories and going back to Puerto Rico
Irma Troche is considering packing up her family memories and going back to Puerto Rico Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“If you’re seeking a place to live and a person doesn’t get back to you, or tells you no, or sets a minimum income — even if you know they are violating your rights, the extra effort to make that claim … is just hard,” he said.

In addition to her online home-hunt with her daughters, Troche has been going door-to-door to different buildings to inquire about available rentals, she said.

The former factory worker was told the wait was for an apartment in a building for seniors was three to four years, she said.

“I’ll probably be dead by then,” Troche said.

Still, Troche won’t stop until she has exhausted every available option. She is in touch with other seniors like her, who, even with help from their children, struggle to find affordable housing in the city.

If she doesn’t find anything over the next few weeks, she’ll be forced to move into her daughter’s one-bedroom apartment, the family said.

“The injustice is what hurts the most,” Troche said. “If I fell down now and broke my leg, that would hurt less than the pain I’m feeling right now.’

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