- Office of Attorney General Maura Healey
Media Contact for Investigation by AG’s Office Reveals Widespread Housing Discrimination by South Shore Real Estate Brokers
BOSTON — Several South Shore real estate brokers and agents have agreed to pay up to $110,000 and attend fair housing training to resolve an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office into allegations that they discriminated against prospective tenants based on receipt of public assistance, Attorney General Maura Healey announced today.
These settlements are the result of an extensive investigation initiated by the Suffolk University Housing Discrimination Testing Program and referred to the AG’s Office that revealed widespread systemic housing discrimination in the South Shore, an area that’s experiencing increasing rents and homelessness. In recognition of the challenges faced by Massachusetts residents who rely on public assistance in securing housing, AG Healey today issued a new guide in English and Spanish to educate tenants, landlords and those in the real estate industry on their rights and obligations under state and federal fair housing laws.
“Rental assistance programs are critical to the economic security of our most vulnerable residents, particularly people of color and people with disabilities. Unfortunately, this type of widespread discrimination is representative of the barriers many face in the search for safe and affordable housing,” AG Healey said. “Housing providers cannot use the requirements of these programs as an excuse to refuse to rent. We will continue to hold accountable those who deny residents access to housing based on bias.”
The four assurances of discontinuance, filed in Suffolk Superior Court and reached over the course of a year, resolve allegations that brokers affiliated with Free and Clear Realty, Century 21 Annex, Unlimited Sotheby’s International Realty, and Success! Real Estate Inc., violated state fair housing and consumer protection laws by illegally denying low-income people the opportunity to rent an apartment because of their receipt of public assistance through the federal Section 8 housing voucher program. Section 8 helps low-income residents afford rental housing in the private market. Some of the settlements also resolve allegations of discrimination against families with children or the publishing of discriminatory advertisements marketing rental apartments.
Investigation of Real Estate Brokers
Between July 2018 and March 2019, a tenant inquired about the rental of at least four separate South Shore properties listed by Free & Clear Realty. The AG’s Office alleges that in each of these instances, the broker terminated contact with the tenant after she disclosed receipt of public assistance and/or that a minor child would live with her in the apartment. Fair housing testing of the properties found evidence of discrimination by the broker against voucher holders and families with children. Under the terms of the settlement with Free & Clear Realty, the broker will pay $15,000 in restitution and attend annual training on state and federal fair housing laws for three years.
The AG’s Office also alleges that a realtor with Century 21 Annex increased the rent on a Braintree property after a Section 8 voucher holder applied and disclosed her receipt of public assistance. The broker wrongly believed that the rent increase placed the property just outside of the voucher’s rent cap and denied the tenant the opportunity to rent the apartment. According to the AG’s Office, the broker continued to market the property and ultimately selected an individual who did not participate in the voucher program and who had a lower credit score than the Section 8 voucher holder. Under the terms of the settlement, the broker has paid $9,000 in restitution and attended fair housing training.
The AG’s Office also alleges that a real estate broker affiliated with Unlimited Sotheby’s made false representations to a variety of prospective tenants with rental assistance vouchers, as well as prospective tenants with children, in response to inquiries about the availability of a Braintree apartment. The broker allegedly told a tenant, who was a Section 8 voucher holder, that the landlord had selected another applicant, while the property remained on the market for weeks. The AG’s Office alleges that, despite Unlimited Sotheby’s maintenance of a compliance program designed to ensure that brokers followed federal and state fair housing laws, this broker made a number of misleading statements in connection with the rental of this property. Under the terms of the settlement, the broker has paid $9,000 in restitution and completed fair housing training.
According to the AG’s Office, between January 1, 2018 and April 18, 2019, various brokers affiliated with Success! published advertisements for rental apartments throughout the South Shore area that included discriminatory statements based on familial status, source of income, and disability. These advertisements included statements like “One person only,” which discriminates against couples and families, or “You must have good credit and decent work history” and “verifiable employment required,” which discriminates against people who receive public assistance and may be unable to work. Under the state’s fair housing law, housing providers cannot make statements or place advertisements that discriminate against a potential tenant based on familial status, source of income, disability, and other characteristics. Housing providers are also prohibited from placing advertisements that suggest a preference for tenants without housing vouchers, without children, or without disabilities.
Under the terms of the settlement, Success has undertaken significant efforts to ensure company-wide compliance with fair housing laws, will implement fair housing training policies for its brokers, and agreed to pay $79,200 to the state, of which $66,000 will be suspended and then waived pending compliance with the terms of the agreement.
Suffolk Housing Study
Suffolk Law School’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program referred these cases to the AG’s Office in January 2019, after the program’s housing testers conducted an initial investigation into several of the brokers and agents and found evidence of discrimination against prospective South Shore tenants based on source of income and familial status. Suffolk University Law School’s Accelerator Practice also represented a tenant who faced widespread source of income discrimination and whose cases were resolved as part of the AG’s Office’s investigation. Since referring these cases to the AG’s Office, Suffolk completed and recently released a housing discrimination study, “Qualified Renters Need not Apply: Race and Voucher Discrimination in the Metro Boston Rental Housing Market.”
The study, conducted from August 2018 through July 2019, found rampant discrimination against renters with Section 8 housing vouchers, as well as discrimination against Black people. Ninety percent of the study participants who indicated they were using a voucher faced discriminatory behavior from a rental agent including the agent cutting off communication with the participant and not setting up an appointment to visit properties. The study tested properties in nine cities including Quincy, the South Shore’s largest city.
“This investigation provides a powerful illustration of how insidious discrimination impacts real families,” said James Matthews, Practitioner-in-Residence and Director of Suffolk Law School’s Accelerator Practice. “Our client and her family were turned away from numerous properties on the South Shore just because they had a voucher. It’s hard to overstate the extreme stress of being denied a fair and appropriate process for finding a home. This joint enforcement effort sends a clear message to housing providers: Don’t engage in this type of illegal conduct.”
“What does this investigation tell us? Those with vouchers face high levels of discrimination while trying to find a safe place to live,” said William Berman, Clinical Professor of Law at Suffolk University Law School. “Those participating in the real estate market have a responsibility to treat those with vouchers fairly and will be held accountable for their misdeeds if they don't.”
Under Massachusetts law, it is illegal to discriminate against any individual who receives federal, state, or local housing subsidies, including rental assistance or rental supplements, because the individual is receiving such benefits. Landlords, property managers, and real estate agents or brokers can’t refuse to rent housing to a voucher holder, refuse to negotiate with a voucher holder, and set different terms or conditions for voucher holders. Housing providers also cannot treat potential tenants who have children worse or differently than those without children. A landlord or realtor cannot stop communicating with an applicant who reveals they have children or make comments suggesting that the unit is not “child appropriate.” Housing providers are also prevented from requiring an applicant for an apartment to show proof of employment.
The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office is committed to enforcing the state fair housing law and has recovered more than $1 million in restitution, penalties, and other relief for residents. The AG’s Office encourages those who have concerns about housing discrimination to call the office’s Civil Rights Division at 617-963-2917 or to file a complaint online.
This case was handled by Assistant Attorneys General David Ureña and Amanda Hainsworth, both of AG Healey’s Civil Rights Division, with assistance from Colleen Frost, of AG Healey’s Civil Investigations Division.