A legal offensive aimed at protecting low-income, handicapped renters who receive government assistance has ensnared 46 South Florida brokerages and dozens of listing agents for allegedly engaging in discriminatory advertising practices, according to court documents reviewed by The Real Deal.
Christopher Benjamin, an indigent man born with Albinism which caused him to develop problems with his sight, including blurred vision and repetitive, uncontrolled movements with his eyes, is suing 35 firms in Miami-Dade and another 11 in Broward for allegedly violating fair housing laws in both counties. The lawsuits also name listing agents as defendants.
Benjamin is represented by Social Justice Law Collective, a Washington D.C.-based firm that specializes in housing discrimination cases. The lawsuits allege Realtor associates working for the defendant brokerages listed rental property advertisements that rejected individuals who receive Section 8 assistance, a federal program which pays landlords the balance of a rent payment that exceeds 30 percent of a renter’s monthly income.
Attorney and Social Justice co-founder Joshua Glickman said the goal of the lawsuits is to force leasing agents and landlords to abide by local laws that prohibit housing discrimination based on a potential renter’s source of income. “If you glance at online classified ads, brokers, Realtors, condo associations and property management companies are still categorically denying tenants based on their source of income,” Glickman said. “It is not only violations of the law, but it also reduces the usability of Section 8 vouchers that represent a vital lifeline for recipients of the federal program.”
The avalanche of lawsuits –– which began on Nov. 20 when Benjamin sued Miami Lakes-based Premium Miami Realty and Realtor associate Ricardo Resino –– prompted the Florida Realtors Association to send out an urgent legal alert to its membership. While the lawsuits don’t pertain to violations of the federal Fair Housing Act, discriminating against Section 8 tenants does violate Miami-Dade and Broward laws, the advisory states.
“General Counsel Margy Grant advises that Realtors are encouraged to audit their listings and advertising to ensure that no listing, either in the MLS or not, contains any language that disallows housing to someone with a Section 8 voucher,” the advisory states. “Realtors must work to educate their landlords or property managers that this is not permissible under the local ordinances.”
Florida Realtors spokesperson Marla Martin said the alert went out after the organization received calls from some of the brokers who were sued by Benjamin. “When we do education classes we focus on state and federal law,” Martin said. “We became aware of the local measures, including in Broward, which just passed additional protections, and made sure that our members are also aware of the local measures that go further than what federal law requires.”
Four years ago, Miami-Dade made it unlawful to use sources of income in determining whether or not to rent or sell a home to an individual. It is considered a discriminatory practice, the same as a person’s race, color, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. Broward passed similar legislation in December.
Among the more prominent brokerages Benjamin is suing: The Keyes Company, Luxe Properties, Related ISG Realty and Countrywide Realty. The most recent lawsuits were filed on March 4 against Aventura-based Beachfront Realty and its associate Gigi Zinn in Broward County Circuit Court and on March 13 against Sunny Isles Beach’s Optimar International Realty and its associate Gregory Whaley in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
According to the complaint against Beachfront Realty, Benjamin is a “fair housing tester” who is qualified to participate in the Section 8 voucher program. As a tester, Benjamin conducts inquiries into landlords and realtors that violate fair housing laws. “Our client knows firsthand the difficulty of finding housing,” Glickman said. “If you have experience with Section 8, you will find housing providers are denying it due to widespread stereotypes about people who receive government assistance.”
In early 2018, while perusing apartment rental listings on Craigslist, Benjamin came across an ad for a two-bedroom apartment for $1,350 a month in Hollywood, according to the Beachfront lawsuit. The ad noted the unit was “1 of a kind” and a “true gem.” But it also included the tagline, “No Section 8 Please.”
Benjamin alleges he was “saddened, angered and insulted” by the fact that Beachfront and Zinn engaged in discriminatory practices and outright refused to accept Section 8 tenants. He also accused Beachfront and Zinn of violating Broward’s Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against renters based on their source of income.
Beachfront owner Ed Roberts dismissed the lawsuits filed by Benjamin and Social Justice Collective. “They are nuisance lawyers who are hoping that brokers will just settle and they can collect thousands of dollars,” Roberts said.
According to Miami-Dade court records, four of the 35 lawsuits have been settled. Glickman refuted Roberts, noting his client gave brokers the opportunity to amend their advertisements before filing the complaints.
“These are not ‘gotcha’ lawsuits,” Glickman said. “The primary goal is to get these actors –– brokers, Realtors, associations and property managers –– to remove the discriminatory advertising and institute policies so that similar ads are not published in the future. I can understand they are unhappy about being called out. Unfortunately, these agents make intentional decisions to violate the law and continue to discriminate against Section 8 recipients.”