A new feature on New York City-based real estate listing site StreetEasy is arming renters with housing vouchers with information about their rights.
Although federal law does not prohibit landlords from rejecting housing vouchers such as those provided by the federal Section 8 program, several state and municipal laws do prohibit discrimination against renters who use vouchers.
As of late December 2020, 49.3 percent of rental listings in the U.S. were located in regions with laws prohibiting discrimination against renters who use vouchers, according to Zillow. In January, Zillow expanded its Local Legal Protections tool to help renters fight voucher discrimination.
Now StreetEasy, a Zillow Group company, has added a banner on the right hand side of a listing that reads “Searching with a housing voucher, like Section 8? SEE TIPS.” When a user clicks, they’re informed that in New York and New Jersey, it is illegal for landlords to discriminate by legal source of income.
They’re also advised to start their search by entering their voucher allowance as their max price in the site’s price range tool and given information on how to report voucher discrimination. The pop-up also links to a StreetEasy blog post with more tips for voucher holders.
According to StreetEasy, tens of thousands of renters in New York City use housing vouchers and many may not be fully aware of their rights.
“Our goal is to make the process of shopping for a home smoother for all New Yorkers, regardless of how they pay for that home, and help remove barriers that prevent New Yorkers from getting into a home they love,” said Caroline Burton, vice president and general manager of StreetEasy, in a statement.
“By adding this information directly onto rental listings, we can empower renters to educate themselves about voucher programs and the local laws that protect voucher holders from housing discrimination.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in lower rents and higher inventory levels in New York City, which means that nearly double the number of homes on the market are affordable for Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher participants in the first half of 2021 compared to the same time period in 2019: 72,522 homes in 2021 compared to 39,347 homes in 2019, according to StreetEasy.
While vouchers can serve as a lifeline for low-income renters, many assistance programs are underfunded and struggling to keep up with demand. During 2019, housing vouchers were undersupplied to severely cost-burdened renters (those who spend 50 percent or more of their income on housing) by a figure of nearly four to one, or 9.7 million households to 2.6 million available vouchers.
The New York City metro area has roughly 6.7 times as many rent-burdened renter households as there are vouchers, StreetEasy said, citing recent Zillow research.
“Housing is a human right, yet far too often low-income New Yorkers are unable to find a decent place to live,” said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of community activist organization VOCAL-NY, in a statement.
“The recent expansion of NYC’s rental assistance program will help change that, but only if landlords and brokers follow the law. This new tool from StreetEasy will help get the word out that source of income discrimination is illegal — and we hope it will help homeless New Yorkers find the homes they deserve.”
Last month, a New York law firm working with a housing rights advocacy group sued dozens of real estate agents and companies — including high-profile players such as Keller Williams, EXIT Realty and a Century 21 franchise — over claims of voucher discrimination against lower-income tenants.
That suit came on the heels of a federal lawsuit filed in March by watchdog group the Housing Rights Initiative, which claims 88 brokerage firms and landlords in New York City — including Compass, Corcoran Group and a Century 21 franchise — have discriminated against people with housing vouchers.
A StreetEasy spokesperson told Inman the site is “actively looking into ways to bring more educational information directly to landlords, agents, and the industry within their experience on StreetEasy and beyond what we already do in our industry-facing events, blog, etc.”