Experienced discrimination because you’re renting with a housing voucher? You can report it online through Unlock NYC
- The site enables renters to record outgoing phone calls in case an agent says something discriminatory
- Recording calls and gathering evidence like texts and emails is crucial for building a strong case
- You can also use Unlock NYC to make an online report to the NYC Commission on Human Rights
Thousands of New Yorkers use housing vouchers to help pay their rent in New York City, but many still face illegal discrimination by agents and landlords, leaving them feeling powerless. That’s something nonprofit Unlock NYC is aiming to change.
“What we do see and hear is that voucher holders feel voiceless. It’s extremely frustrating and demoralizing at times when they are searching for housing,” says Jessica Valencia, head of communications for Unlock NYC. “We can’t thrive if we don’t have permanent housing.”
Landlords and agents are prohibited from discriminating against a prospective renter based on their source of income under NYC’s Human Rights Law, but for those that have been, Unlock NYC offers an online tool that helps users record phone calls and report discrimination to the NYC Commission on Human Rights.
[Editor’s Note: This story is part of a new series exploring housing voucher programs in NYC. You can also read our other stories on bias against voucher holders, how to make sense of your voucher paperwork, how to rent an apartment with a voucher, and how agents should treat voucher holders.]
Unlock NYC, founded in 2019, offers two tools to help users report discrimination online. One enables users to record their outgoing phone calls in case an agent or landlord says something discriminatory, such as that they don’t accept housing vouchers. Recording calls and gathering evidence—such as texts and emails—is crucial for building a strong case, Valencia says.
“We encourage our users to take screenshots of the listing, share the link, and if they have evidence that’s better, such as text messages between them and the broker or emails,” Valencia says. “The more receipts the better.”
You can record a call using Unlock NYC’s chat bot, which will call you and instruct you to dial the number of your agent or prospective landlord. Once you hang up, you can download the call or go right to making a report online by providing additional information, such as the apartment listing, address, rent, and how an agent or landlord behaved.
Making a report
You can also use Unlock NYC to make an online report to the NYC Commission on Human Rights—the agency responsible for investigating, prosecuting, and resolving complaints of discrimination—though it may be a slow process. The commission took almost two years to resolve the average complaint in the 2022 fiscal year, when it received 11,942 inquiries, according to an agency report.
Still, there are a handful of other ways to report discrimination. You can call 311 and ask for “human rights,” contact the State Division on Human Rights, or reach out to the NYC Commission on Human Rights directly online or by phone at 212-416-0197. (You can also read Brick’s best advice on what to do to protect your rights here.)
Unlock NYC also helps users report discrimination to its own crowdsourced anonymous database, where you can view complaints of alleged discrimination online categorized on the type of behavior, address, and neighborhood. And for those interested in starting a legal case, Unlock NYC refers users to the Fair Housing Justice Center, a nonprofit which offers free counseling and investigative services.
Looking for change
Unlock NYC has served more than 500 New Yorkers since its tools launched in 2021, and Valencia says two-thirds of users who report at least three times get a positive outcome—such as getting to view, apply to, or move into an apartment after being previously denied.
And reporting can also lead to broader policy changes, Valencia says. The NYC Commission on Human Rights has mandated that companies accused of discrimination set aside units specifically for voucher holders through a handful of settlements, Gothamist reported.
“Reporting does matter, Valencia says. “The more that we report, the more numbers that we have and we can show to city officials and policymakers so we can protect those that are the most vulnerable, like voucher holders.”
If you’ve attempted to use a voucher to find an apartment, or are a landlord with experience renting to voucher-holders, send us an email. We may contact you for a future article. We respect all requests for anonymity.
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