Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) recently announced a comprehensive initiative combating housing discrimination against those who seek to pay rent with federal, state, or local rental assistance, such as Section 8 housing choice vouchers, the State Rental Assistance Program (SRAP), Temporary Rental Assistance (TRA), or the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program (CVERAP).
Dubbed “Project HOME” (Housing Opportunity Made Equal), the initiative is a combination of enforcement, prevention, and public awareness efforts, and reflects New Jersey’s national leadership and innovation in promoting fair housing and combating discrimination through the State’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
Under the LAD, landlords cannot refuse to rent to potential tenants or discourage them from renting because they receive government rental assistance. A landlord’s desire to avoid the “paperwork” or required inspections associated with a public subsidy is not an excuse for such discrimination.
It is also unlawful for a housing provider to advertise a property in any way that discriminates against prospective tenants based on their source of lawful income. Common examples of such unlawful advertising include: “This property not approved for Section 8”; “No SRAP applicants,” and “Sorry, TRA not accepted.”
The initiative announced today was prompted by the discovery that many online advertisements for rental housing in New Jersey – across a broad range of online platforms – contained such unlawful statements.
“In 2018, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the federal Fair Housing Act, which made it illegal to discriminate in housing based on race, sex, religion, familial or disability status, or national origin,” said Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, who serves as Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs. “New Jersey’s fair housing laws go further by protecting from discrimination against residents who seek to pay their rent with assistance from the State. However, housing discrimination remains a problem today.”
Lt. Governor Oliver added: “Our Administration is committed to ending the discriminatory housing market tactics that are still being used. We are demonstrating this commitment through this year-long initiative to end advertisements that discriminate against tenants based on their sources of lawful income. We won’t stop until they stop and ALL New Jerseyans are able to find a safe, affordable place to call home free from discrimination.”
“This is a vital initiative, particularly during these difficult times. People’s homes are their safe havens, and otherwise-qualified families who rely on public assistance to pay their rent deserve better than to be denied available housing due to bias-driven stereotypes,” said Attorney General Grewal. “Landlords, property sellers, and real estate professionals should not advertise in a way that discourages or outright rejects housing seekers paying with help from the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program, with Section 8 housing choice vouchers, or any other valid public housing assistance.”
“When a person who is able to get a housing voucher is turned away by a landlord who holds stereotypes about people who receive government rental assistance or who thinks they can ‘choose’ not to participate in the program, it can lead to homelessness. This disproportionately harms people of color and people with disabilities,” said DCR Director Rachel Wainer Apter. “Although this type of discrimination has been illegal in New Jersey for nearly twenty years, our investigation found the law was regularly flouted. These actions should send a message to all housing providers that we will not accept discrimination against people who rely on government rental assistance.”
Enforcing the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination
DCR has resolved through settlement agreements many of the approximately 100 notices of violation that it issued against housing providers who posted online advertisements that discriminated on the basis of potential tenants’ sources of lawful income. Companies and individuals with recurring posts agreed to make monetary payments in lieu of penalties of up to $15,000; to refrain from posting unlawful advertisements in the future; and to adopt measures to guarantee future compliance.
Among others, DCR has reached Assurances of Voluntary Compliance (AVCs) with Iridium Realty Group, LLC, an apartment rental service that serves Essex, Hudson, Union, and Morris counties; ERA Young Real Estate, a real estate company based in Gloucester County; and Slatehouse Group Property Management, a property management company specializing in tenant placement and management services. DCR identified a combined 59 discriminatory advertisements from these companies on websites including Craigslist, Zillow, and Bright MLS.
DCR also reached an AVC with Tenant Turner, Inc., a software development company offering available real estate for rent, which requires the company to make critical changes to its website; create a new process for screening and flagging discriminatory advertisements; educate its users and employees on fair housing; and make a payment in lieu of penalty of $2,500.
Collaboration with Companies, Other Partners to Prevent Discrimination
DCR has also collaborated with online real estate and rental platforms, New Jersey-based trade associations, and other partners, to stop source of income discrimination. The collaborations are reflected in Statements of Collaboration and Memoranda of Understanding executed by DCR and its partners that include Zillow, Apartments.com, ApartmentSmart.com and the New Jersey Apartment Association.
Educating the Public about Source-of-Lawful-Income Discrimination
Attorney General Grewal and DCR also are taking action to inform tenants of their rights and landlords of their obligations under the LAD.
As part of the initiative, the Attorney General’s Office will be releasing a series of videos from officials and advocates discussing fair housing and source-of-income discrimination. The first video was released today.
In addition, today DCR is issuing an updated Model Fair Housing Policy which housing providers can use to create their own LAD-compliant fair housing policies. In addition, DCR is releasing an updated fair housing letter to property owners which licensed brokers and salespeople are required to provide to all property owners who list property with them. These new policy documents include new language highlighting the LAD’s prohibitions on source of lawful income discrimination, bias-based harassment in housing, and discrimination on the basis of disability and familial status.
The updated documents also explain that blanket policies making all individuals with a prior arrest or criminal conviction ineligible for housing violate fair housing laws, because they have a disproportionate impact based on race and national origin, and are not supported by a legitimate business necessity. Housing providers also may not use criminal history as a pretext for intentionally discriminating based on race or national origin (for example, by applying criminal-record-based restrictions against Black housing applicants, but not white housing applicants).
In a related action, Attorney General Grewal and DCR Director Wainer Apter will host a virtual Town Hall Meeting on September 17 at 12:30 p.m. focused on housing discrimination. The Town Hall meeting will center on lawful-source-of-income discrimination and other forms of housing discrimination and how to prevent them.
Anyone interested in learning more about their rights under the LAD can review the Fact Sheets on DCR’s website, including a Fact Sheet on source-of-lawful-income discrimination.
Chief of Strategic Initiatives Aaron Scherzer; Legal Specialists Derek Fischer, Kaley Lentini, and Danielle Thorne; Investigator Charles Washington; and Research Assistant Rohit Tallapragada handled this matter on behalf of DCR. Assistant Attorney General Mayur Saxena; Deputy Attorneys General Renee Greenberg and Nadya Comas; and Law Assistant Joanna Loomis of the Division of Law’s Affirmative Civil Rights and Labor Enforcement Section represented DCR in this initiative.
Anyone who believes their fair housing rights have been violated can file a complaint with DCR by visiting njcivilrights.gov or calling 973-648-2700.