There were over 31,216 reported complaints of housing discrimination nationwide in 2021, according to the National Fair Housing Alliance. Per their research, housing discrimination against people with disabilities makes up more than half of all complaints, accounting for 53.68% of cases. (By comparison, housing discrimination based on race makes up approximately 18.97% of all cases.)
What about NYC? Although New York touts itself as a progressive and highly diverse city, it still faces its share of housing discrimination violations. In February 2023, the Housing Rights Initiative filed a lawsuit alleging that 77 property owners and residential brokerages in the city discriminated against potential tenants attempting to use Section 8 housing vouchers.
There are many city, state, and federal laws in place that protect and safeguard New Yorkers’ rights to fair housing. That includes the Fair Housing Act, a federal law dating back to 1968 that protects people from discrimination when renting or buying a home. This guide will help you understand the Fair Housing Act, and know your rights under it as a renter or buyer in New York City.
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What Is the Fair Housing Act in NYC?
The Fair Housing Act applies to NYC, but it is a federal law. It works on a national level to prevent discrimination in both public and private housing, and to protect tenants and buyers. According to the law, a person seeking to buy, rent, or obtain financing for a home cannot be discriminated against based on their race, national origin, sex, familial status, religion, or disability.
What Is a Protected Class of People?
A protected class is a group of people who have historically been discriminated against because of a specific characteristic. A person who is part of a protected class is legally protected under housing anti-discrimination laws. Thanks to the Fair Housing Act and a combination of state and city laws — like the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws — NYC has 17 different classes protected from housing discrimination. Landlords, real estate agents, co-op and condo boards, and lenders are legally prohibited from discriminating against these protected classes based on the following characteristics:
- Immigration or citizenship status
- Skin color
- Gender (including sexual harassment)
- Gender identity
- Marital status and partnership status
- National origin
- Pregnancy and lactation accommodations
- Sexual orientation
- Status as a veteran or active military service member
- Lawful occupation
- Lawful source of income (including vouchers)
- The presence of children
- Status as a victim of domestic violence, stalking, and sex offenses
What Actions Are Prohibited?
The list of actions that can be considered discrimination — and therefore illegal — is extensive. Here are some guaranteed protections based on a person’s status (or inclusion) in a protected class to be aware of:
- A landlord or homeowner can’t refuse to rent or sell property to that individual.
- You cannot be charged a higher rent or given a higher asking price.
- A landlord can’t ask for a higher security deposit or withhold returning the security deposit.
- Your access to privileges, services, or facilities of a dwelling cannot be limited.
- A landlord can’t fail to maintain a property or otherwise fail to meet a landlord’s responsibilities.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers detailed examples of prohibited acts under the Fair Housing Act.
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History and Origins of the Fair Housing Act
Housing discrimination is a systemic issue in the United States. It has historically created racial segregation and exacerbated disparities in income, education, and quality of life between people living within the same communities.
For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws created a discriminatory and hostile environment for Black people and other minority groups. They were prevented from living in areas deemed to be for whites only. Although laws were subsequently passed to make such discriminatory practices illegal, some still occur. Examples include:
- Steering: This is a practice in which real estate agents try to guide buyers or renters toward — or away from — certain neighborhoods or properties based on specific characteristics, such as race, national origin, or religion.
- Redlining: The term is derived from the practice of literally drawing red lines around certain “undesirable” areas on a map. Individuals who lived or moved within these redlined areas were either directly denied real estate services based on their racial or ethnic background, or indirectly denied services by selectively raising prices.
- Blockbusting: Some real estate agents used to encourage white property owners to sell at a low price by convincing them that Black and other minority families were imminently encroaching on their community. Agents would then sell the properties to Black and other minority families for a much higher price.
It wasn’t until the seminal passage of the Fair Housing Act that the federal government took concrete, wide-sweeping action to counteract housing discrimination like the above. Also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 — a follow up to the 1964 Civil Rights Act — it creates more equitable housing opportunities for all.
At the time, the legislation had a much narrower scope and only prohibited housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. In subsequent years, its jurisdiction was broadened and additional protected classes were added. Other laws were passed to discourage discriminatory lending practices, including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974 and the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977.
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How to File a Housing Discrimination Complaint
If you feel you’ve been the victim of housing discrimination, you have options.
- File a complaint with the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO): FHEO enforces the federal Fair Housing Act, and it also works with agencies on a city and state level. It may decide to investigate your complaint, or it can refer you to one of these agencies, who can review your claim and escalate as it sees fit.
- File a complaint with the Law Enforcement Bureau of the NYC Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR): You will meet with one of the Commission‘s staff attorneys to discuss the allegations and guide you through the process. These services are free of charge.
- File a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights: DHR enforces the state of New York’s fair housing law. You can file your complaint online, and its website also has a wealth of information about housing rights.
- File a complaint with the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office: If you have questions or believe you have been a victim of housing discrimination, you can reach out to the Attorney General’s office via phone or email.
It’s important to note that the NYC Human Rights Law requires that you file the complaint within a year of the last alleged act of discrimination. And you cannot file a complaint if you’ve already filed one about the same situation with any other court or agency.
The process, understandably, can feel daunting. If you’re not sure where to start, you can call 311 or visit the 311 section of the city’s website for guidance.
There are also many organizations here in NYC that can help. Here are some of the support providers available:
- Fair Housing Justice Center: It helps individuals with housing discrimination complaints and advocates for fair housing policies and programs.
- New York Lawyers for the Public Interest: This organization provides legal representation, self-help materials, advice, and referrals.
- The Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office: This branch of the AG’s office can answer questions if you believe you’ve been the victim of discrimination. You can file a formal complaint with this office as well (see above).
The most important thing to know is that you have federal-, state-, and city-protected rights regarding housing and discrimination. If you think you’ve been a victim, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of these organizations right away.