Brokers see limited compliance on one-year anniversary of housing law

Residential apartment brokers throughout the city say many landlords refuse to rent to tenants with federal housing assistance vouchers despite a year-old law that prohibits discrimination against renters based on their source of income.

Brokers placed much of the blame on the city, which they said has done little to publicize the rules which went into effect in late March 2008.

Johnna Woods, a sales associate at North Brooklyn Realty, covering territory including Bushwick and East Williamsburg, said she has dropped listings from about 25 landlords since last fall after they told her they would not rent to Section 8 tenants. She would not identify any of the delinquent landlords.

“Some landlords said flat out, ‘It is my building. I am not taking a voucher,’ and those are the ones we just had to drop,” she said.

The law was passed after the City Council overrode a veto by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The statute is enforced by the city’s Commission on Human Rights, whose deputy commissioner Cliff Mulqueen testified against the proposed legislation in hearings in 2007.

Judith Goldiner, supervising attorney at Legal Aid Society, is representing about 100 tenants in lawsuits against approximately the same number of landlords for alleged violations of the statute.

She faults the city with a lack of promotion.

“We are seeing many instances of non-compliance,” she said. “The Human Rights commission has not done any community education on this.”

Cliff Mulqueen, deputy commissioner and general counsel for the commission, strongly disagreed, saying his agency had done significant outreach and taken enforcement actions.

“We filed at least 150 cases, which is 20 percent of our caseload. There is no way anyone can say we are not vigorously enforcing the law,” he said.

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He said of the 150 complaints filed with the commission, including about a dozen initiated through its own investigations, 83 were resolved in favor of the tenant, and only three against. The balance is pending, he said.

The law prohibits landlords of buildings with six units or more from refusing to rent an apartment to tenants who use housing assistance, including the widely-used federal Section 8 program.

Tenants using Section 8 vouchers generally put about 30 percent of their income toward the rent and the balance is paid by the program. There are about 123,000 families that use Section 8 vouchers in the city, a spokesperson for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development said. The federal agency issues the vouchers that are then administered by local agencies.

About 31,857 landlords are participating in the federal program by renting to Section 8 tenants, an all-time high, a city Housing Authority spokesperson said.

Yet many landlords disregard the new law, brokers said.

“Most landlords don’t care about the [law] said Juanita George, a broker with Charles Rutenberg Realty. Small owners are under pressure to get tenants in their buildings and object to what they see as a long bureaucratic process, she said. One landlord she represented had to wait three months for a mandatory apartment inspection. She would not name any of the negligent landlords.

But Howard Marder, a spokesman for the city Housing Authority, said 92 percent of such inspections are done within three weeks.

A six-unit apartment at 58-32 43rd Avenue in Woodside, Queens, listed on last week said the landlord did not accept Section 8 vouchers. A person who answered the phone number associated with the building did not identify himself and declined to comment Monday. He said only that the apartment had been rented.

The landlord trade group the Rent Stabilization Association opposed the law because it required participation instead of allowing it to remain voluntary. But instead of filing a direct legal challenge to the law, the association is tracking ongoing cases brought by tenants against landlords.

“In our newsletter, we informed our membership about the law,” said Mitchell Posilkin, general councsel for the RSA. “But there is always an enormous gap between owners who are more sophisticated and more knowledgeable, and those who are not.”