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The NYC Fair Housing Act: What You Need to Know

Find your next Apartment
May 5, 2021
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Even if you know the best rental websites in NYC, finding the perfect apartment in New York can be hard. To start with, New York has some of the most stringent requirements when it comes to renters. You need to have a good credit score and proof that you can afford the apartment, and if you have bad credit, there are times when even having a guarantor can’t help you. Furthermore, the apartment rental scene can be pretty cutthroat during peak season!

If that wasn’t hard enough, you also need to be aware of the legal side of renting an apartment in New York, such as tenant rights and the NYC Broker Fee Law.

It all sounds pretty confusing, and first-time renters might need tips to be able to land their dream apartment.

However, even if everything seems to go right for you, there is still a chance that you won’t be able to qualify for an apartment because of an unethical broker or an unscrupulous landlord.

This is where the New York Fair Housing Act comes in.

NYC’s Fair Housing Act at a Glance

In a nutshell, the Fair Housing Act is a federal law that seeks to protect people from discrimination in residential housing disputes. The law states that a person that is seeking to buy or rent a property or otherwise seek financing to afford housing, cannot be discriminate against on the basis of their sex, race, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, familial status, or disability.

The law was put into place to protect both buyers and renters.

What does “Protected Class of People” Mean?

Under the Fair Housing Act, it is illegal to discriminate against a protected class of people and prevent them from buying or renting a property in NYC. A protected class of people refers to any group that has historically experienced discrimination based on a specific characteristic such as the color of their skin or citizenship status. There are 17 protected classes under this law.

The Fair Housing Act does not work alone to define a protected class. It works in conjunction with other state and federal laws, such as the New York City Human Rights Laws and the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development Equal Opportunity Housing Act.

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What is Illegal Under the Fair Housing Act?

There are a number of discriminatory - and therefore illegal - actions that are prohibited under the Fair Housing Act. The list is quite extensive, so if you feel that your landlord or broker has violated your rights under this law, you can check the NYC Fair Housing Act website to check.

Here are some of the most common complaints reported to the National Fair Housing Alliance:

  • Refusal to rent or sell property due to reasons such as marital status, sexual orientation, or religion.
  • Asking for higher rent or security deposit based on any reason other than financial insolvency.
  • Denying access to privileges, amenities, facilities, or services that are accessible to other tenants in the same building.

There are cases when it can be difficult to ascertain whether your landlord or broker is guilty of violating the Fair Housing Act. You may need to hire a lawyer who specializes in housing law to sort out your case if you feel that you have a case.

Keep in mind that taking legal action might result in expensive legal fees and multiple appearances in court. It can also result in your rental history having a record of your case. Be sure that you are prepared for these eventualities before you take any legal recourse.

Why is there a Need for the Fair Housing Act?

Discriminatory housing practices have long been an issue in the United States. In 2019, over 28,000 complaints of housing discrimination were filed in the US. Of these cases, the most common complaints involved discrimination against a person with a disability, accounting for almost 60% of the cases. The second most reported type involved race (around 17%), the third involved familial status (around 8%), and the fourth involved sex (around 7%).

These discriminatory practices have inevitably resulted in significant disparities in quality of life between people living in the same communities, particularly in education, safety, and income. It has also resulted in racial segregation, with many neighborhoods showing a substantially high number of a particular race compared to others.

Arguably, the most glaring example of discriminatory housing practices occurred during the Jim Crow era, when laws were specifically drafted to create a separation between the white population and BIPOC. While these laws are considered to be antiquated and outright barbaric today, there are still practices that are remnants of this era.

Blockbusting

A scare tactic where real estate agents and brokers encourage landlords and property owners to sell their property at below market value by using BIPOC as “boogeymen”. These unethical brokers convince property owners that minorities are going to “take over” the neighborhood. Afterwards, these same brokers will sell or rent the properties to BIPOC people for a marked up price.

Redlining

This term comes from a practice where brokers will draw “red lines” around areas on a map that are deemed “undesirable”. Individuals who live within these areas are then discriminated against in a number of ways, such as being given higher rent prices or outright disqualification for rent applications.

Steering

A practice where brokers will guide - “steer” - prospective renters towards or away from certain neighborhoods or districts based on characteristics that fall under the protected classes definitions.

How to File a Complaint Under the Fair Housing Act

If you feel that your rights have been violated under the Fair Housing Act, you have a number of options to protect yourself. Take note that you are required to file your complaint within a year of the alleged violation. You can only file a complaint with one agency at a time.

Here are some of the agencies where you can file a complaint:

Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO)

A department under the United States Housing and Urban Development, the FHEO is the body that enforces the Fair Housing Act. It works on a city, state, and federal level. Once you have filed a complaint, it can either investigate or refer you to a state-level agency that will review your complaint.

New York State Division of Human Rights

This agency is one of the state-level agencies that work with FHEO. They are responsible for enforcing the state’s Fair Housing Law. You can file a complaint on their website.

NYC Commission of Human Rights

If you don’t have resources to hire a private attorney, this agency has staff attorneys that offer their services free of charge.

Final Thoughts

Understandably, the process can feel challenging, especially if you are a first-time renter in NYC. However, there are groups that can help such as the Fair Housing Justice Center and the New York Lawyers for Public Interest. You can find resources, legal advice, and affordable legal representation through these channels.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you have rights as a renter in New York City. These rights are enforced on a city, state, and federal level, and you are protected against all forms of discrimination with regards to housing.

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