Unique settlement creates hope for change to rampant housing discrimination in DC

photo of Maple View Flats Apartments

Maple View Flats Apartments on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave in Anacostia. Photo by Ben Gutman

A source-of-income complaint that local housing nonprofit Housing Counseling Services and their client, Robert Evans, brought against Bozzuto Management Company ended in a settlement last month.

Evans alleged that Bozzuto quoted him a rent price but after they learned he was planning to pay with a voucher quoted him a higher price that fell outside the maximum value of his voucher. Bozzuto effectively denied Evans housing because his rental subsidy would not have been able to cover the higher rent he was quoted plus utilities, said Mirela Missova, counsel at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. A lawsuit filed against the owner of the property is ongoing.

While Bozzuto has denied the allegations of the complaint and any liability, evidence favorable to Evans led to a settlement that may have broad implications for future voucher discrimination cases and local housing-related legislation. At a minimum, attorneys involved in the case say settlements like this show property management companies that there are consequences for housing discrimination.

The settlement agreement reaffirms that Bozzuto will follow the law: not charging higher rates for tenants based on their source of income (such as a housing voucher). But it goes farther to clarify common unregulated practices used to discriminate against poor tenants. Bozzuto has agreed not to consider a prospective tenant’s credit score if they are using an income based subsidy to pay rent, since the government is responsible for the subsidy. Furthermore, Bozzuto has agreed that it will not impose minimum income requirements on applicants using an income-based subsidy, since they are receiving the subsidy explicitly to compensate for an income that is too low to cover the District’s astronomical market rent. Bozzuto will also make a monetary payment to Housing Counseling Services and Evans to cover costs, attorney fees, and damages.

The forces behind the agreement

D.C. housing providers’ systemic refusal to rent to voucher-holders keeps some housing voucher recipients homeless and steers others into low-income neighborhoods, fueling the city’s intense income-based and racial housing segregation. This pervasive denial of housing for both federal and local housing voucher holders constitutes unlawful “source of income” discrimination under the D.C. Human Rights Act, which is enforced by the Office of Human Rights. However, while some source of income discrimination stems from blatantly illegal advertising, other forms of discrimination are not as easy to root out. 

screenshot of housing discrimination infographic
Housing discrimination disproportionately impacts communities of color and perpetuates cycles of homelessness. Data Courtesy of Equal Rights Center / Infographic created by Brianna Bilter

Over the past several years, the Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP), a civil legal services organization serving low-income D.C. residents, has utilized a “stabilizing communities” outreach project to train pro-bono attorneys, partner organizations, and voucher recipients on the intricacies of source-of-income discrimination. This tactic was implemented in part due to Managing Attorney of the NLSP housing unit Lori Leibowitz’s experience at an annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day event. 

“A number of years ago I learned that people with vouchers were dying on the streets,” Leibowitz said. At the December 2016 memorial, Street Sense Media vendor Kanell Washington was remembered. He had been approved for housing 24 hours after his death.

The “stabilizing communities” outreach project included pre-pandemic presentations at the D.C. Housing Authority to everyone who got either a new voucher or transfer voucher to let them know that voucher discrimination is illegal. 

Housing Counseling Services has also made outreach, tenant education, and the formation of partnerships with organizations that can take legal action on behalf of its clients a priority.

“We make protections against and support for individuals who feel they’ve been discriminated against available in all of our programs and service areas and it’s something that we have in every one of our workshops or webinars to remind people not to accept discrimination as a fact of life, but to fight discrimination at every level,” said Marian Siegel, executive director of Housing Counseling Services. 

[Read more: Housing provider accused of racial discrimination and discrimination based on source of income]

This outreach effort sparked a close relationship between Housing Counseling Services and NLSP, eventually resulting in a cooperative push to secure reparations and justice for Evans and future voucher-holding residents of Bozzuto-managed properties in the District.    

A lack of education on the illegality of voucher discrimination and the daunting  process of taking action against discrimination make efforts like Evans’s uncommon.

[Read more: In March, a Borger Management flyer drew community ire for stating the company did not accept vouchers. Borger said it was a printing error]

“At the beginning of most of our workshops, one of the questions we ask in our survey is, ‘Have you ever been a victim of housing discrimination?’ And the vast majority of participants have said ‘yes,’” Siegel explained. “The next question is, ‘Have you taken action about that discrimination?’ And the vast majority of respondents say ‘no.’”

However, Evans’s initiative serves as an example to other D.C. renters on the potential collective benefits that legal action can produce for the community as a whole, Leibowitz said. Evans’s case became a chance to attack the less obvious issue of landlords charging more for voucher holders than non-voucher holders. 

NLSP sees a lot of landlords raising the rent when voucher holders apply. Sometimes landlords raise the rent to the highest rent that the housing authority will allow to make more money, but other times they’ll raise the rent above the payment standard because they don’t want to rent to the voucher holder and it’s a way to keep them out, Leibowitz said. Unfortunately, oftentimes legal representatives do not have enough documentation to prove source of income discrimination.    

[Read more: Real Estate Evolve LLC will pay $250,000 penalty for discriminating against housing voucher recipients]

“There was a piece of paper that said that the rent was $1250 and then later, when they found out that Mr. Evans had a voucher, they said for people with vouchers the rent is $1360,” Leibowitz said. “There was actually a recorded phone call where someone on staff was very clear that it is their policy to charge voucher holders more than people who don’t have vouchers, so for us it was a very cut and dry clear case.”

Both Siegel and Leibowitz were adamant in their praise for Evans as the primary force behind the successful settlement agreement. Evans’s insistence that his main goal was for nothing like this to happen to anybody else helped center justice for the community at large in the plaintiff’s demands.  

Future implications 

The Bozzuto settlement is impactful in several different ways, according to Leibowitz and Siegel. First, it is something that housing advocates and tenants can point to to discourage similar actions by other management companies or property owners. The settlement is also proof for struggling renters that fighting against discrimination can yield concrete results that benefit not just the plaintiff, but the community as a whole. Siegel added that in cases where landlords use voucher discrimination as a technique to reap higher rents, this decreases the number of available vouchers and inhibits other struggling D.C. residents from accessing housing subsidies. 

Second, during the negotiations, Bozzuto was clear that they wanted to be a partner in stopping voucher discrimination, according to Leibowitz. 

“This settlement is unique in that Bozzuto has agreed to affirmatively do more than the law requires. They’re not just agreeing to not discriminate, but they’re agreeing to make things easier and more fair in ways that are beyond the literal requirements of the law,” Leibowitz said. 

As one of the largest management companies in D.C., Bozzuto’s proactive attitude towards the protection of District voucher-holder’s rights serves as an example that may encourage other housing providers to do the same. 

Third, some of the provisions in the Bozzuto agreement are also provided in the Fairness in Renting Emergency Act of 2020 — specifically, Sec. 510, which outlines the appropriate steps housing providers must take when screening tenants. Due to its status as an emergency act that was passed in response to the pandemic, those protections expired on Feb. 7. While the emergency act required housing providers to notify prospective tenants of information needed in the screening process, there is no amendment that prohibits housing providers from considering the credit score of a prospective tenant who will use an income-based subsidy to pay the rent. If the D.C. Council moves to make the bill permanent, Bozzuto’s actions could provide data to show that the legislation’s content could provide further protections for voucher holders.

Issues |Civil Rights|Housing|Housing Vouchers|Systemic Racism

Region |Anacostia|Ward 8|Washington DC

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