Housing advocacy groups are warning of a significant increase in discrimination by landlords in western New York after local nonprofits received more than 415 reports of housing discrimination last year. This is the highest number in nearly 40 years and the second highest level in the group’s 60-year history.
The Equal Housing Opportunity Association said only 432 reports received in 1984 exceeded the number of complaints in 2022. It is also the only time the number of cases exceeded 400 in a single year.
HOME Associate Director Daniel Corbitt, an attorney, called the “huge number” of reports “disturbing,” but also said “the human toll from these acts of discrimination is truly appalling.”
“Where you live really matters,” he says. “Discrimination leads to housing insecurity, has devastating effects on health, academic performance and employment opportunities, and drives inequality and intergenerational poverty.”
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Last year’s figure was up 29% from 2021 and more than doubled from 2020, when authorities received and investigated 202 complaints. Previously, since at least 2003, the number of discrimination reports ranged from 165 to 231 annually.
To make matters worse, the agency said the 415 complaints were “disturbing but just the tip of the iceberg.” Most incidents of housing discrimination go unreported by victims, often because they are unaware of their rights and the protections they are entitled to, or do not trust anyone to do anything about them.
“Americans like to convince themselves that progress is being made, especially on issues such as discrimination, but the reality is that discrimination is just as common today as it has ever been,” said HOME education manager Steven Haagsma in a prepared statement. “It may be more subtle than other points in our history, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone.”
Led by Executive Director Deanna Eason, HOME describes itself as a civil rights organization focused on ensuring equal opportunity in housing through education, advocacy and fair housing law enforcement. This not-for-profit agency receives complaints, investigates nearly all complaints, and works on behalf of tenants to resolve with landlords or file formal complaints with city, county, state, or federal regulators to escalate reports.
Last year, HOME reached resolution in 277 lawsuits and filed seven formal lawsuits with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Erie County Fair Housing Commission, or the New York State Board of Appeals. The rest are either still in negotiations with the agency or HOME has been unable to find evidence to justify them.
“It is important to continue investigating these allegations and to strongly enforce anti-discrimination laws at all levels of government,” Hagusma said.
In an interview on Sunday, Hagusma said it was “impossible to say for certain” why the level of complaints had spiked, but cited both an increase in actual discrimination as a possible factor, as well as an increased awareness of residents’ rights and ability to make complaints.
He said the National Fair Housing Alliance, the umbrella group for local nonprofits like HOME, will also see an increase in 2021, reflecting what HOME finds locally. National data for 2022 are not yet available, but “I wouldn’t be surprised if this trend continues,” Haagsma said. “That national report lends some credence to the belief that housing discrimination is actually on the rise.”
In addition, however, HOME has strengthened its own ability to not only investigate complaints it receives, but to initiate its own investigations based on information obtained from landlords in advertisements and other sources. For example, if you offer an apartment on Facebook Marketplace, but notice that you don’t accept families with children or don’t accept rent assistance, both exclusions are illegal and could trigger an investigation.
In 2020, the agency received a new contract from the state that allows it to hire several more investigators, so it is “more capable of accepting and investigating these reports than before,” Hagsma said.
“There is so much unreported housing discrimination that it is impossible to know how much the actual rise is responsible for,” he added. “But regardless of the reason for the increase, this is alarming because it shows that housing discrimination is still alive and well in western New York. This is not good news by any means.”
While the nature of complaints varies widely, Haagsma said the four most common problems have remained consistent over the years. These include discrimination based on income source, disability, family status and race.
For example, it is illegal to deny housing based on the use of a US Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 8 voucher or an Erie County Department of Social Services bond contract. The city of Buffalo has banned such discrimination since 2006, and the county passed its own law in 2018, followed by the state in 2019. Last year, however, HOME received 128 reports of discrimination based on income.
This was followed by 86 disability-related complaints, the highest number of complaints received by HOME in 20 years, and 64 complaints about discrimination against families with children under the age of 18. He also had 56 complaints about racism.
Haagsma said many landlords don’t understand that renting an apartment is “essentially running a small business” and think they can do what they want with their property.
“You don’t need a degree to be a landlord. You don’t need to know about fair housing laws,” Haagsma said. “So it is not uncommon for landlords to discriminate without realizing their actions are illegal.”