Washington City Paper: Renter With a Housing Voucher Sues Real Estate Company for Income Discrimination

Jan 14, 2020

By Amanda Michelle Gomez

A D.C. resident with a federal housing voucher is suing a Colorado-based real estate company for income discrimination.

Tiana Martinwas just looking for new housing to rent in or near Dupont Circle, where she was already living. In her search, she came across Latrobe Apartment Homes located at 1325 15th Street NW, which refuses to lease available rental properties to residents who use Housing Choice Vouchers as payment for their monthly rent, according to a complaint filed in D.C. Superior Court on Tuesday. The law firm Handley Farah & Anderson is representing Martin.

The D.C. Human Rights Act says it is illegal to discriminate against renters based on their “source of income.” Vouchers are a lawful source of income to pay rent, according to the lawsuit. For willingly denying her the opportunity to rent an available unit because she uses a voucher, Martin alleges that Latrobe's owner and operator, Apartment Investment Management Company (“Aimco”), broke the law. She is now suing on behalf of herself and other residents like her, asking the court to certify the case as a class action lawsuit.

Aimco did not immediately respond to request for comment.

D.C. is a very expensive city to live in—with the average rent for a market-rate one-bedroom reaching nearly $2,000 per month—and many residents depend on government subsidies to afford rent. This is why attorneys working the case thought it was critical to take legal action.

“We think it's really important to make sure that the laws around source of income discrimination are enforced and respected to ensure that all District residents can continue to live throughout the city and have affordable housing,” says Rachel Nadas, an associate attorney at Handley Farah & Anderson.

The lawsuit also accuses Aimco of violating the D.C. Consumer Protection Act for making untruthful claims about the services it provides. On its website, Latrobe says it complies with the Federal Fair Housing Law. “All applications and renewals are considered equally without discrimination on the basis of any class protected by applicable laws,” reads an answer on the Frequently Asked Questions page. But an answer to another question reads: “We do not accept housing vouchers at this community.” As of Tuesday morning, these answers still appeared on the Latrobe’s website.

The lawsuit is asking the court to declare that Aimco, along with its subsidiary, is violating several D.C. laws. It’s also asking the court to issue an injunction, ordering the real estate company based in Denver, Colorado to stop refusing to rent properties to Housing Choice Voucher holders. The plaintiff would be awarded monetary damages and class members, treble damages.

Martin, a full-time federal employee, came to learn about Latrobe’s renting practices over the summer when she was looking for housing. She thought Latrobe would be a good fit for her, so she called a number affiliated with the landlord. According to the lawsuit, an agent named Lisa told Martin a one-bedroom apartment was available Sept. 11 or later. But when Martin told her she uses a Housing Choice Voucher to subsidize the full cost of her rent, Lisa allegedly responded: “Unfortunately we do not accept Section 8.” After the interaction with the agent, Martin checked Latrobe’s website for more information and that’s when she saw the Frequently Asked Questions page.

“[Martin] was denied the opportunity to obtain housing in her desired location for which she was otherwise qualified, causing [her] hardship in securing available housing, and embarrassment and humiliation to be told that she was not welcome at [Latrobe] property because she had a housing voucher,” the lawsuit reads.

It's unclear how many residents were denied an opportunity to rent a unit at Latrobe Apartment Homes, the lawsuit says. Martin is one of over 10,500 D.C. families who uses a Housing Choice Voucher. (The Housing Choice Voucher Program is the largest source of rental assistance administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helping more than two million families nationwide obtain affordable housing.) But given that the question—“Do you accept housing vouchers (Section 8)”—on its website, the lawsuit contends Housing Choice Voucher holders must have inquired about living there.

“The concern is that other people either went to the website and either applied or were deterred from applying or reached out directly as our client did and were told, after reaching out, that they wouldn't accept the voucher,” says Nadas.

Aimco wouldn’t be the first real estate company to deny renters with vouchers. A WUSA9 investigation from 2018 uncovered that more than 100 Craigslist advertisements had language like “No housing vouchers,” “Vouchers not accepted,” and “Owners will not be accepting Section 8 vouchers.” That same year, the Office of the Attorney General for D.C. sued two real estate companies for allegedly refusing renters with housing vouchers.

“Source of income discrimination is prohibited by D.C. law, but unfortunately not all property managers and landlords have been following the law. And we think it's really important because it's put in place to help alleviate the effects of the affordable housing crisis in D.C.,” says Nadas. “Having management companies [and] landlords ignore the law furthers that crisis because it doesn't allow people to seek housing and it makes it difficult for people to seek housing throughout the city and ends up concentrating people into only certain neighborhoods.”

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