Just like any other renters: How voucher holders should expect to be treated by NYC real estate agents
- Agents can’t tell you the rent is higher or refuse to rent to you because you have a voucher
- It is illegal to request over $20 for an application fee or keep a separate waitlist for voucher holders
- You can be asked for financial information to demonstrate that you can afford the rent
If you’re a renter in New York City, you may get an agent who doesn't return your text message, at least not right away. For those trying to rent an apartment with a housing voucher, not getting calls returned at all—or more discriminatory treatment—seems far more common.
Tenants complain of agents ghosting them because they rely on rental subsidies such as CityFHEPS or Section 8—a type of voucher that covers most or all of a tenant’s rent. One renter emailed Brick to describe how an agent told her she had to pay a higher price for an apartment because she used a voucher. But according to fair housing laws, an agent shouldn’t treat a voucher holder differently than any other renter.
“There are two core tenants of fair housing: Treat everyone the same way and focus on the financial wherewithal of the prospective tenant,” says Neil Garfinkel, an attorney at Abrams Garfinkel Margolis Bergson. He serves as broker counsel to the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) and answers agent’s questions on fair housing through REBNY’s legal hotline, classes, and weekly newsletters.
Agents are prohibited by law from discriminating against renters based on their source of income, including housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance. In practical terms, an agent cannot charge you additional money to rent or apply to an apartment, shuffle you off to specific buildings or neighborhoods, or choose to work with certain voucher programs but not others.
Read on for what to expect from your real estate agent when you’re renting with a voucher.
[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 to report discrimination online.]
Your agent should not treat you differently
Your agent is required to treat you like any other renter under NYC’s fair housing laws, Garfinkel says.
In practice, that means agents cannot keep a separate set of apartments that they only rent to voucher holders, work with landlords who discriminate against voucher holders, or advertise that a certain building does not accept housing vouchers, according to the NYC Commission on Human Rights, which investigates discrimination claims.
Garfinkel advises agents to go through the same basic steps for every client, including having a conversation about fair housing. Real estate agents are required to give every renter a copy of the New York State Fair Housing and Anti-Discrimination Disclosure Form, which outlines your right not to be discriminated against based on certain characteristics like race, gender, sexual orientation and your source of income.
“I recommend that they use that opportunity, when they give the disclosure form, to talk about fair housing,” Garfinkel says. “By setting the stage, it gives them an opportunity to interact with the consumer from a position of information and, more importantly, from a position of doing the same thing over and over again. By following that checklist, they're going to treat everyone the same way.”
Expect to provide your voucher, and potentially a credit score
Your agent can ask you for financial information, such as your credit score and voucher, to demonstrate that you can pay for an apartment. (Depending on your program, you may be paying between 30 and 40 percent of your income towards rent).
An agent will need a copy of your voucher to determine what apartments fit your program’s requirements and what to show you, says Sarah Saltzberg, CEO and co-owner of NYC real estate agency Bohemia. For example, a CityFHEPS voucher may cover a certain amount of rent if all utilities are included, but will pay for a lower amount if utilities are not included. And a Section 8 voucher holder can only rent a unit if its bedroom is at least 80 square feet, according to the NYC Housing Authority.
“We’re not even going to show them the apartment if we know on paper that it's not going to pass. It's a waste of everybody's time,” Saltzberg says. “Agents don't have the time. The client certainly shouldn't waste their time going to see it. But if we know on paper that it's going to pass, then it's worth a shot, and we can get them in.”
Garfinkel recommends an agent get a copy of a prospective tenant’s voucher and contact information for a tenant’s caseworker, if they have one. But he says a credit check usually isn’t necessary.
“We will treat all the voucher recipients the same way with respect to credit and qualification,” Garfinkel says. “Because generally the voucher is being paid by a municipal entity we will generally not ask for a credit score. There might be limited instances, but generally I don't recommend it because the voucher recipient has already been vetted by the [municipal] agency.”
Your landlord can consider your credit score only if your voucher doesn’t cover the full portion of your rent. They cannot, however, mandate that you make a certain salary or require a guarantor to sign a lease, according to the NYC Commission on Human Rights.
Red flags to watch out for
If an agent asks for a higher rent for the apartment or a sky-high application fee, it’s not just a red flag, it’s illegal. But one renter found that agents still tried to charge her more.
“Many realtors I've met have been very discriminatory against me utilizing my voucher as payment,” the renter wrote to Brick in an email. “Some say ‘oh that's the cash price, for a voucher it costs more’ [or] ‘you need to pay $80-$250 for [the] application fee. One person actually told me that I need to stop having kids [and that] I have too many.”
Changing the price of an apartment is a clear violation of NYC law, Garfinkel says. And it’s illegal to charge anyone—not just voucher holders—more than $20 for an application fee.
“The purpose of our fair housing laws is that people in protected classes are treated the same,” Garfinkel says. “The maximum application fee is $20. It does not matter what property you are renting out or whether you have a voucher or not…Additionally changing the rent because someone has a voucher is also not acceptable and is definitely an illegal activity.”
If you think you have been discriminated against, you can file a report with the NYC Commission on Human Rights through this online form, call 212-416-0197, or call 311 and ask for “human rights.” You can also use Unlock NYC's online reporting tool, which includes a way to record phone calls to gather evidence of discrimination. Feel free to read Brick’s guidance on making a report here.
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