Guide to Fair Housing Act for NYC Renters and Buyers
In 2016, there were over 28,000 reported complaints of housing discrimination nationwide, according to the National Fair Housing Alliance. According to their research, housing discrimination against people with disabilities makes up the majority of complaints accounting for 55 percent of all cases, while housing discrimination on the basis of race makes up approximately 20 percent of all cases. Although New York City touts itself as a staunchly progressive and highly diverse city, it ranks as the third most segregated city in the nation for African Americans and second most segregated city for Latinos and Asian Americans.
According to Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center, a nonprofit serving New York City’s five boroughs and the seven surrounding New York counties dedicated to eliminating housing discrimination and strengthening the enforcement of fair housing laws:
“Real estate is very expensive in New York City. That coupled with low inventory disadvantages renters and applies further pressure on marginalized populations who already face limited housing opportunities. That makes the issue of access to housing more critical here.”
In addition to the high premiums and low inventory levels, housing experts contend that the New York City real estate market may more acutely disadvantage consumers – particularly renters – due to the relationship between landlords and brokers. According to Freiberg, one of “… the most unique characteristics of the New York City housing market is the fact that brokers often play a pivotal role as gatekeepers in [the] rental market. Real estate agents can subtly filter, steer and guide renters to properties on a discriminatory basis. As such, it’s more challenging for renters to know whether housing discrimination is occurring because they are not dealing directly with the landlords.”
In order to combat the systemic challenges of the real estate market here in New York City, there are local, state and federal institutions in place to protect and safeguard New Yorkers’ rights to fair housing.
In this guide, we break down important elements of federal, state and city fair housing laws so you can better understand how they operate to protect consumers in New York.
NOTE: This guide is for informational purposes only. StreetEasy does not make any guarantees as to the sufficiency of the information contained in this guide or their compliance with current, applicable laws. This resource is not a substitute for the advice or services of an attorney; you should not rely on this source for any purpose without consultation with a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.
What is the Fair Housing Act?
The Fair Housing Act is a federal law that works on a national level to prevent discrimination in public and private housing and to protect tenants and buyers. According to the law, a person seeking to buy or rent an apartment cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, age or status as a member of another protected class of people.
What is a Protected Class of People? A protected class of people refers to a group of people with a common characteristic who have historically been discriminated against because of that characteristic and now are legally protected under anti-discrimination laws on the basis of that characteristic.
Although the Fair Housing Act is a federal law that has national jurisdiction, the prohibition of discrimination is also enforced on a state and local level. In New York City, state and local fair housing laws are at work to ensure that all renters and buyers have equal housing opportunities and do not face housing discrimination. In addition to the federal Fair Housing Act, New York City is subject to the New York State Human Rights Law as well as the New York City Human Rights Law, which prohibit landlords, real estate agents, co-op and condo boards and lenders from discriminating against protected classes of people.
So…Who is Protected?
In New York City, the Fair Housing Act works in concert with the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws to prevent discrimination. As such, renters and buyers in New York City receive a broader range of coverage than renters and buyers in locations without local anti-discrimination laws, including 17 protected classes. See below for a breakdown of what each law covers. Keep in mind that in New York City, all three laws equally cover buyers and renters.
The federal Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of:
In addition to the characteristics listed above, the New York State Human Rights Law makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of:
In addition to all that is listed above, New Yorkers are covered against discrimination on the basis of the following classifications according to the New York City Human Rights Law:
Domestic partnership status
Lawful source of income (including public assistance/housing assistance, Social Security, supplemental security income, pensions, or unemployment benefits)
Status as a victim of domestic violence, sex offenses, or stalking
What Actions Are Prohibited?
Based on the Fair Housing Act, the following actions are considered discrimination and are therefore illegal:
For a landlord or homeowner to refuse to rent property to an individual based on the individual’s status as a member of a protected class (“Status”)
For a landlord or homeowner to charge higher rent or demand a higher asking price from a renter or buyer based on the individual’s Status
For a landlord to ask for a higher security deposit from a tenant or withhold the security deposit from a tenant based on the tenant’s Status
For a landlord or homeowner to distribute advertisements that discourage tenants or buyers from applying based on their Status
For a landlord to fail to maintain a property or otherwise fail to meet the responsibilities required of a landlord based on a tenant’s Status
History and Origins of Fair Housing Act
Housing discrimination is a systemic issue in the United States that 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 latter half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws created a discriminatory and hostile environment for black people and other minority groups and prevented them from living in areas deemed for whites-only. Although laws were subsequently passed to make discriminatory practices illegal, a culture of racial steering, redlining and blockbusting predominated. Although these tactics are less prevalent than in the past, they can still subtly manifest themselves.
Racial steering is a practice in which real estate agents try to guide buyers or renters towards or away from certain neighborhoods or properties based on their race.
Redlining is a term used to describe the practice of either directly denying real estate services to individuals based on their racial or ethnic background or indirectly denying services by selectively raising prices. The practice was pervasive throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s and particularly impacted black families seeking home loans. As a result of discriminatory and discretionary lending practices by banks, certain communities became deprived of mortgage capital, leading to greater racial segregation and urban decay. In 1935, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created mortgage security maps and color-coded neighborhood maps indicating financial stability. Certain neighborhoods were outlined in red to indicate high risk and to warn banks against lending there. These neighborhoods were usually predominately populated by black residents.
Original Home Owners’ Loan Corporation redlined map of Brooklyn, New York (Source: Pro Publica)
Blockbusting was a common practice in which real estate agents would encourage white property owners to sell their property at a low price by causing the property owners to fear that black and other minority families were imminently encroaching on their community. Real estate 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, also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968, that the federal government took concrete, wide sweeping action to counteract housing discrimination and create more equitable housing opportunities for all in the future.
LBJ & Civil Rights Act
The Fair Housing Act was originally intended to serve as a direct byproduct of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but faced major congressional opposition and failed to pass. It wasn’t until the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968 and the riots that ensued that the bill finally broke through the congressional deadlock. When the Fair Housing Act was signed into law, President Lyndon B. Johnson called it one of the “greatest promises of the century,” one that “proclaims fair housing for all – all human beings who live in this country – is now a part of the American way of life.” In the years since its passage, the Fair Housing Act has come to stand as a key component of President Johnson’s Civil Rights campaign.
Despite the great opportunity the Fair Housing Act promised when it was originally passed, it had much narrower scope and only prohibited housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. In subsequent years, its jurisdiction has been broadened to prevent discrimination based on disability and family status. Later, the federal government also passed other laws to discourage discriminatory lending practices including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974 and the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977.
Jurisdiction and Enforcement of the Fair Housing Act
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is responsible for overseeing and administering the Fair Housing Act on a national level. HUD delegates enforcement and compliance responsibilities to the office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO). The FHEO is one of the nation’s largest civil rights agencies with a staff of over 600 employees and 54 offices nationwide.
If you feel you’ve been the victim of housing discrimination, you have the option of filing a complaint with the FHEO. The FHEO works with agencies on a local and state level where there are laws that are substantively equivalent to the Federal Fair Housing Act in place. The FHEO can refer you to one of these local agencies, which can review your claim and escalate as it sees fit. The FHEO has two types of organizational partners, the Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP) and the Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP). FHAP helps fund state and local agencies that enforce the Fair Housing Act. FHIP helps fund local nonprofits that provide housing discrimination support and services to individuals and families.
Because the Fair Housing Act is a federal law, federal district courts in New York state (such as the Southern District of the State of New York Court in the Bronx or the Eastern District of the State of New York Court in Downtown Brooklyn) can hear cases regarding housing discrimination. Therefore, as a victim of housing discrimination you do not necessarily have to go though FHEO or any other government agency; you have the ability to file a complaint directly with the federal court. If you go this route, however, it is recommended that you hire legal counsel or work with a nonprofit housing advocacy organization that provides pro bono legal services. This approach may seem daunting, but there are many rights advocacy groups here in New York City, which are able to help. Here are some of the support providers available:
Fair Housing Justice Center
CNY Fair Housing
NYC Commission on Human Rights
NYC Housing and Preservation
NYC Housing Development Corporation
NYC Housing Connect
New York Lawyers for the Public Interest