Investigative Post: Buffalo Not Enforcing Its Fair Housing Law
The heating in her apartment was acting up and her knee problems made carrying groceries up the stairs difficult. So, Gloria Adkins had gone with a friend to look at an apartment in Black Rock, planning to ask the landlord if he had anything else available.
After he said he did, she steeled herself to ask the all-important question: Did he take Section 8, a federal program that helps poor people pay their rent? She remembers him saying no: too much hassle, too much paperwork.
Most people would have let it go. But Adkins knew that refusing to rent to somebody because they receive Section 8 is a violation of Buffalo’s fair housing law. She filed a complaint with Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a local fair housing organization. HOME’s undercover testing showed that what happened to her wasn’t a one-off, and passed these findings on to the city’s fair housing officer.
Almost two years later, Adkins is still waiting to hear back.
Buffalo’s fair housing law was put in place to protect the thousands of city residents who rely on government assistance to pay their rent. But, in the 12 years since the law passed, the city has done little to enforce it, despite receiving at least 25 complaints like the one Adkins filed, most of them borne out by undercover testing—the gold standard in housing discrimination cases.
In many cases, it’s unclear whether city officials even decided whether a landlord had violated the law. Those decisions, when they were made, were painfully slow. And even when a landlord was found to have discriminated, in most cases there’s no indication that the city took any action against them.
In Buffalo, one of the nation’s poorest cities, Section 8 is a lifeline for thousands of families. But an entire swath of the rental market is off limits to Section 8 tenants—not because they can’t afford the rent, but because many landlords refuse to take their vouchers.
“The enforcement of this ordinance has been wholly insufficient and is a slap in the face to hardworking, lower-income families,” said DeAnna Eason, HOME’s executive director. “This demonstrates that fair housing is not a priority of this local government.”
Mayor Byron Brown said the city is “very aggressive” in pursuing fair housing cases, and that “any cases that have not been resolved are pending.” In fact, records show that city officials allowed many cases to sit, unresolved, for years—then argued they couldn’t do anything because the statute of limitations had expired.
Investigative Post was able to find only one case where the city took legal action against a landlord—and then only recently, after we began asking about the lack of enforcement. In most cases, city officials haven’t pursued out-of-court remedies, like bringing the parties together to work out a settlement, or making landlords take fair housing training, either.
Case files have been lost. The position of fair housing officer has sat vacant for years at a time. A 2013 University at Buffalo study concluded that the law “has been a failure on substantive grounds due to the lack of implementation.”
The city’s inaction gives landlords who discriminate little incentive to obey the law. In one case, a landlord had a message on their answering machine: “No smoking and no Section 8.” In another, a landlord emailed one of HOME’s testers, “My ad on Craigslist states on the first line that I do not accept section 8 … Good luck with your house hunt!” There’s no record of the city taking action against either one.
This story is based on a review of discrimination complaints referred to the city by HOME, emails and memos between city officials and fair housing advocates, and interviews with more than 30 people, including those who filed complaints and landlords who had complaints filed against them.
Robert Dmochowski, whose wife owns the apartment Adkins looked at, said they don’t discriminate against anyone. He wasn’t sure if the case had been resolved, but said he hasn’t heard anything from the city in over a year.
For Gloria Adkins, it wasn’t just about this particular apartment, or this particular landlord. For her, Section 8 is a “godsend.” She remembers the relief she felt when she first received her voucher, after years on the waiting list. She was taken aback at how many landlords wouldn’t accept it.
“For somebody to just decide, ‘Well, I’m not going to deal with you because you have that program that’s assisting you,’ it’s ridiculous,” she said.
Law decades in the making
It took Buffalo almost four decades to pass a fair housing law. In the 1980s, fair housing legislation twice won support on the Common Council, only to be vetoed, both times, by Mayor James D. Griffin. At one tense public hearing, in 1989, angry homeowners kept interrupting the bill’s authors as they tried to explain it.
“By this point, fair housing had become the third rail of Buffalo politics and no one wanted to touch it,” said Scott Gehl, HOME’s executive director for 35 years, until his retirement at the end of 2016.
It was 17 years before the Common Council would revisit the issue, a few months into Brown’s first term as mayor. Even in 2006, when the law finally passed, it was only by one vote.
North District Councilman Joseph Golombek denounced the proposed legislation as “social engineering,” telling the Buffalo News he feared this kind of law would deny property owners the right to choose their tenants.
“I don’t want to be forced to rent to scumbags who might live down the street,” he said.
In fact, nothing in the law prevents—or even discourages—landlords from screening tenants. An entire section of the law is dedicated to landlords’ rights. They can turn down anyone who can’t afford the rent or whose neighbors have complained about them. They can check an applicant’s references, credit score and history of evictions. And, in a concession to smaller landlords, the law exempts owner-occupied doubles and triples, which make up a substantial portion of Buffalo’s housing stock.
Buffalo’s fair housing ordinance goes further than state and federal law, which prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, and religion, among other categories, adding gender identity and “lawful source of income”—Section 8, Social Security Insurance benefits, housing assistance from the Erie County Department of Social Services.
But this comes with a catch: Victims of source of income discrimination can’t take their complaints to state or federal agencies. Until recently, they could only go to the city. (In April, Erie County passed a fair housing law with similar source of income protections.)
Among those the law is meant to protect are the almost 9,000 households in Buffalo—almost 20,000 people—who depend on Section 8 to help pay their rent, according to data from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Almost 40 percent are families with children. Another quarter are elderly. Sixty-five percent are African American, as are almost all the people who’ve filed discrimination complaints. Refusing to rent to Section 8 recipients is often a subtler way of refusing to rent to black people, advocates say.
Examples of discrimination
In theory, Section 8—officially the Housing Choice Voucher Program—allows recipients to live wherever they can afford the rent, giving them the chance to move out of distressed neighborhoods to places with more job opportunities, better schools and less crime. In reality, that choice is limited.
Some neighborhoods are too expensive, even with a voucher. The average income of a Section 8 household is just $13,000 a year—less than half the city average. Voucher holders put roughly 30 percent of their monthly income towards the rent; the subsidy covers the rest, up to a cap set by the federal government.
Apartments have to pass an annual safety inspection: working heat and hot water, no fraying electrical wires, no broken windows or rotting porch steps. Some landlords complain that the inspections require jumping through too many bureaucratic hoops, and that repairs are costly. There are benefits for landlords, though. They’re guaranteed to receive the portion of rent covered by the subsidy every month, via direct deposit. And the program creates a safety net: if a voucher holder loses their job, for instance, the rental assistance increases.
Still, many landlords flatly refuse to take Section 8. Scrolling through rental listings online, a voucher holder will find dozens that tell her to keep looking: “no rental assistance,” “no pets, no Section 8!” “DOES NOT ACCEPT SECTION 8.”
Other landlords accept Section 8, but selectively, steering voucher holders to certain neighborhoods. At Kissling Interests, one of the city’s biggest landlords, property managers said the company’s two stately apartment buildings on Delaware Avenue, near Gates Circle, were “not Section 8 approved,” according to one complaint. Instead, they suggested a shabbier residential complex in a neighborhood where the poverty rate is almost twice as high. The case against Kissling is still unresolved; through an attorney, the company declined to comment.
The wait for a voucher lasts years. Demand for the program far outstrips the federal funding available. None of Buffalo’s Section 8 agencies is currently taking new applications. Once off the waiting list, new voucher holders have a window of time—up to 120 days, depending on the agency—to use the voucher, or risk losing it altogether.
As rents rise, this is becoming more common. At Belmont Housing Resources for WNY, one of the city’s Section 8 agencies, almost a quarter of the people coming off the waiting list lost their vouchers last year—a sharp increase, managers say.
Chastity Dean found herself in this position after a property management company refused to take her voucher at an apartment in South Buffalo. She had been turned down because of her Section 8 twice already, she told HOME. With time running out, “all I wanted to do was get into that apartment and pretty much save my Belmont,” she said, referring to her Section 8. Instead, she said, she lost her voucher.
It’s been more than three years since the city concluded that she had been discriminated against. In that time, the company she filed the complaint against has closed down. One of the final entries in her case file notes that, last summer, the fair housing officer said her complaint was “still being worked on.”
Kissling Interests, one of the city’s biggest landlords, said the company didn’t accept Section 8 at this apartment building on Delaware Avenue, one complaint shows. Instead, employees suggested this less desirable complex in a poorer neighborhood (photos by Joed Viera):
Inept city bureaucracy
Most of HOME’s case files tell a similar story: a complaint is filed, substantiated by testing and sent to the city. Then, phone calls to city officials go unreturned, excuses are made, months pass, and the case fizzles out. Almost every step of the city’s process for handling discrimination complaints has broken down at some point.
Stack them all up and the pile of complaints isn’t that large. Voucher holders and advocates say discrimination is pervasive, but it goes mostly unreported, national research shows. Between 2006, when the law went into effect, and the end of last year, the city received at least 25 complaints—roughly two a year.
By the time the city receives a complaint, HOME has already done most of the investigative work. It’s then up to the city’s fair housing officer to determine whether there’s “probable cause” that discrimination occurred.
In 10 cases, the city’s sloppy record keeping makes it unclear whether this ever happened. In response to a Freedom of Information request, the city provided records for just four complaints, none of them complete. Several cases were abandoned after the person who filed the complaint lost touch with HOME, or, in one instance, became homeless.
Findings of discrimination, when they do come, take almost three times longer, on average, than the 120 days the law allows.
If a landlord is found to have discriminated, the fair housing officer is supposed to bring the parties together for settlement talks. In many cases, there’s no record of this happening, according to a review of HOME’s case files.
One landlord told Investigative Post she settled her case for $20, with no requirement that she attend fair housing training—although she acknowledged that she hadn’t known about the law. HOME, which filed the complaint after finding an ad she had posted on Craigslist, for a “classy, comfy home” saying “sorry, no section 8 applicants accepted,” was never informed of the settlement.
If the landlord isn’t willing to settle, the fair housing officer is supposed to send the complaint to the city’s law department, which can take legal action seeking to impose fines or revoke rental licenses. In roughly a third of cases, the city has apparently failed to take action even after finding that a landlord has violated the law, HOME’s records show. This reluctance is all the more striking given that the city pays HOME to investigate discrimination complaints, spending scarce federal grant money on work that goes unused.
“It’s very frustrating to tell folks that this is what the law says, but the city’s not enforcing it,” said Daniel Corbitt, HOME’s associate director and staff attorney. “As more time goes by, there’s less and less chance that folks will ever receive justice in a lot of these cases.”
Harold Cardwell, the city’s fair housing officer since June 2015, says the complaint process works well. He disagreed that some cases never receive determinations, but refused to provide specifics.
Andrew Cuomo and Eric Schneiderman, when they served as state Attorney General, took action against several landlords who turned Section 8 recipients away. The city, by contrast, has apparently taken legal action against a landlord only once, records and interviews show, and only after Investigative Post began making inquiries.
In January 2016, Jackie Crouch was evicted from an apartment in South Buffalo after her landlords told her, via text message, that they would not fill out her Section 8 paperwork.
The city took seven months to reach a finding of discrimination. Reached by phone, Richard Mazella, who owns the property with his wife, declined to comment, saying the complaint was “bogus.” After settlement talks fell apart last summer, Crouch didn’t hear from the city for months. She wondered if filing the complaint had been worth it.
Finally, in May, city attorneys filed a lawsuit against the Mazellas, seeking $4,500 in fines and a one-year suspension of their rental licenses.
For victims of discrimination, the stakes are high, and when the city fails to act, they have few options. The law gives them the right to take legal action against a landlord independently, but going to court is costly and time-consuming. Only one case has so far been resolved this way.
After University Property Management refused to take her voucher at an apartment in North Buffalo, Naima Stewart rushed to find somewhere else before she ran out of time, according to an affidavit filed in the case.
The place she’d wanted was close to the shops and restaurants of Hertel Avenue. Instead, she ended up in an apartment building on Lafayette Avenue, on the West Side, where the hallways smelled of sewage and were littered with used condoms, she said in the affidavit. The police were often called to the building on drug raids, sometimes breaking down apartment doors. She could hear “sounds and fights related to prostitution” through the thin apartment walls.
In 2015, a state Supreme Court judge awarded Stewart almost $10,000 in damages. The city never decided whether she had been discriminated against.
It’s not news to the Brown administration that the fair housing law has gone almost entirely unenforced.
A 2012 report by HOME found “inconsistent staffing of key positions related to fair housing.” In 2013, a study by researchers at UB noted that “no records of fines, civil penalties, or other enforcement actions have been maintained since the adoption of the ordinance.” In 2014, the city’s own federally required fair housing plan registered concerns that the law was mostly “symbolic” and warned of “limited funding, limited political will and a lack of coordination within and across various agencies”
The city has never filed the annual reports on its fair housing caseload that the law requires. A landlord training manual on the city’s website doesn’t mention the law’s key provision. A link to a discrimination complaint form takes users to a HUD form, although federal law doesn’t include source of income protections.
Many landlords say they don’t know about the law, and the city doesn’t take advantage of obvious opportunities to educate them. The Department of Permit and Inspection Services is supposed to ensure that owners of apartment buildings certify that they’re “fully aware” of the law. A process to do so was never put in place, one city official said.
The city requires smaller landlords to register their rental properties, but doesn’t tell them about the fair housing law during the sign-up process, according to city officials and registered landlords. (Cardwell, the fair housing officer, said he distributes copies of the law at the city’s foreclosure auctions.)
Three years ago, frustrated at the city’s inaction, fair housing advocates tried to make the case for enforcing the law in person, emails and memos show. But the first city attorney they met with, in June 2015, was reassigned, soon afterwards, to traffic court. A second attorney told them that November that he’d been given the go-ahead to take legal action in one of the cases, but—after several months of confusion—they learned he had left to work for the Buffalo Board of Education.
By the summer of 2016, city attorneys had bad news. Many of the complaints were now more than three years old: too old to prosecute, they argued, because the statute of limitations had expired. The housing advocates were dismayed. The city had sat on these cases for years, and now the lawyers were saying it was too late to act on them. After setting new deadlines for the more recent cases, a third attorney assigned to work on fair housing left.
Donmetria Campbell filed a complaint against Greenleaf & Co. in 2011, and city records show the fair housing officer found probable cause of discrimination. Greenleaf representatives denied the allegations in a meeting with the city, according to HOME’s case file. While the records show that the fair housing officer referred the case to the corporation counsel’s office, there’s no indication the city took any formal enforcement action. Greenleaf, through its attorney, declined to comment.
After years of following up and waiting, Campbell stopped calling HOME to ask about her complaint, not wanting to be a nuisance. It wasn’t the first time she had been turned down because of her voucher, and it wouldn’t be the last.
“I could make 10 phone calls right now,” she said, “and at least six of them would come back and say, ‘No Section 8.’ ”
Charlotte Keith is a reporter for Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative journalism center focused on issue of importane to Western New York.