“Second Class Citizens”

Photo © by Bernard Kleina

December 7, 2023

FHJC INVESTIGATION UNCOVERS SOURCE OF INCOME DISCRIMINATION BY MAJOR NYC LANDLORDS, MANAGEMENT COMPANIES, AND REAL ESTATE AGENCIES

Today, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) announced it has filed a new source of income discrimination lawsuit against real estate brokerage Bohemia Realty Group LLC, property owners HP Savoy Park II Housing Development Fund Company Inc., New Savoy Park Portfolio LLC, 511 West 173 Holdings LLC, and 609 West Associates, L.P., property owners and managers Coltown Properties LLC, Fairstead Management LLC, and Beach Lane Management, Inc. d/b/a aptsny.com. Real estate agents Tony Wright, Lauren Bergen, Katherine Kocik, Michael Machemer, Daniel Edmund, Shelly Brown, and Caitlin Santander are also named as Defendants.

The FHJC is joined as co-Plaintiff by Jane Doe, a survivor of domestic violence who fled her abuser and who is remaining anonymous for her protection. Ms. Doe currently resides in a shelter, although she has a Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (FHEPS) voucher that will pay 100% of her rent for a one-bedroom apartment up to a monthly maximum of $2,387.

In August 2023, Ms. Doe contacted Bohemia to inquire about an apartment advertised on its website. She was initially told that the unit was available and she was invited to schedule a viewing the next day. But when she asked about using her voucher, she was immediately funneled to Bohemia’s “Housing Voucher Team,” which has its own process for handling inquiries and processing applications, and which requires prospective tenants using vouchers to provide the voucher and other information before the prospective tenant will be shown an available unit. Bohemia does not require non-voucher prospective tenants to submit anything before being offered the opportunity to view units.

Over the next several weeks, Ms. Doe made numerous attempts to apply for apartments that met her voucher’s requirements. She was repeatedly told either that the units she identified did not qualify under her voucher program, or that they were already rented despite still being listed online as available.

Following several messages to Bohemia in which Ms. Doe respectfully provided all requested information, she was put in direct contact with agent Katherine Kocik, a member of Bohemia’s Housing Voucher Team. Ms. Doe worked closely with Ms. Kocik on more applications, providing numerous documents and an application fee in a timely manner.

Despite her diligence, Ms. Doe continued to miss out on available apartments, and had an application denied because of a past credit issue that should not have been applicable under the rules for her voucher. Eventually she contacted the FHJC for help.

The FHJC already had received several source-of-income complaints about Bohemia and the property owners and managers that engaged and authorized Bohemia to interact with prospective tenants, including Savoy Park.

In an extensive series of investigations begun in late 2022, FHJC testers posing as applicants who were not using housing vouchers were met by Bohemia agents with enthusiasm and prompt responses to their inquiries. If a requested unit was unavailable, the agents proactively provided information about comparable available units and invited the non-voucher testers to view and apply for the apartments. By contrast, testers who stated they would be using vouchers were given the runaround, told the apartments didn’t qualify for the voucher programs, or falsely told that apartments were no longer available. Several voucher testers were ghosted altogether.

In October 2023, the FHJC conducted further investigations related specifically to one of the apartments Ms. Doe had applied for. Ms. Doe’s application was still pending, but she had been told this unit might become unavailable due to a possible “internal transfer” by the landlord.

An FHJC tester who claimed to be using a housing voucher expressed interest in the same unit that Ms. Doe had already applied for. The tester was told that she could not apply for or even view the unit before submitting her voucher and other materials that are not required of non-voucher prospective tenants.

At the same time, a non-voucher tester was given an appointment to view the unit with Bohemia agent Shelly Brown the very next day. When the tester told Ms. Brown that she had heard another application had already been submitted for the apartment, Ms. Brown confirmed with her office that that applicant (believed to be Ms. Doe) had been denied because they were using “a program,” and she invited the non-voucher tester to apply for the apartment. Ms. Brown added that the landlord was “looking for qualified people,” and that “they have the right to pick and choose who they want.” She also informed the tester that the unit would be taken off the market if the tester made a $500.00 “good-faith” deposit, refundable only if the application was denied.

Bohemia repeatedly followed up with the non-voucher tester to see if she wanted to rent the unit, but Bohemia never followed up with the voucher tester.

The lawsuit accuses Defendants of violating New York City Human Rights Law and New York State Executive Law with regard to Source of Income Discrimination. The full complaint can be read HERE.

“In their marketing materials and in their interactions with clients, Bohemia presents itself as valuing voucher tenants. But as Ms. Doe’s experience and our investigations have revealed, this is merely a smokescreen,” stated FHJC Executive Director Elizabeth Grossman. “In reality, Defendants treat voucher tenants like second class citizens, undeserving of the care and attention they reserve for other tenants.”

Ms. Doe and the FHJC are represented by Mariann Meier Wang, John R. Cuti, and Eric Hecker, with the law firm Cuti Hecker Wang LLP. “When property owners and agents discriminate against voucher holders, they prevent especially vulnerable people from transitioning to stable and safe housing, and that cannot and will not be tolerated,” said Mr. Hecker.

FHJC’s investigations in this case were supported with funding from a Private Enforcement Initiative – American Rescue Plan (PEI-ARP) grant received from the Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP) administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The mission of the FHJC, a nonprofit civil rights organization, is to eliminate housing discrimination; promote policies and programs that foster open, accessible, and inclusive communities; and strengthen enforcement of fair housing laws in the New York City region.