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Herring files housing discrimination suits, alleging source of income bias

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Attorney General Mark R. Herring’s Office of Civil Rights has filed 13 separate lawsuits against 29 real estate companies that own and operate rental housing, for alleged illegal housing discrimination in Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico.

The Office of Civil Rights alleges that these real estate providers categorically rejected callers who disclosed that they intended to use their Housing Choice Voucher to pay rent. Under a Virginia law that became effective in 2020, it is illegal for landlords to discriminate against people who use assistance to secure housing.

These are the first lawsuits filed in Virginia to enforce the Virginia Fair Housing Law’s prohibition on source of income discrimination.

“Every single Virginian has the right to a safe, comfortable home, regardless of whether they have some assistance paying their rent,” Herring said. “Blocking Virginians who would use a Housing Choice Voucher to pay their rent is outright housing discrimination and will not be tolerated in Virginia. I want to thank my Office of Civil Rights for their hard work and dedication to putting a stop to discrimination of any kind in the Commonwealth, as well as the Housing Rights Initiative for bringing this alleged illegal conduct to my team’s attention. In Virginia, if you can pay the rent, you deserve the chance to qualify for the home you want.”

Last spring, during National Fair Housing Month, Herring highlighted new housing discrimination protections for Virginians that included source of income as a protected class under the Virginia Fair Housing Law. Because of legislation that Herring supported, it is now unlawful in Virginia for housing providers to discriminate against someone because of their source of income.

These new protections ensure that all Virginians seeking housing – including those who use Housing Choice Vouchers or receive other governmental assistance – will have a fair chance to qualify for a home of their choice.

The Office of Civil Rights has filed 13 lawsuits against 29 defendants who refused to even consider renting to someone with a Housing Choice Voucher. In each of the 13 lawsuits, the Commonwealth is seeking an injunction to stop the illegal discrimination, monetary damages, as well as civil penalties and costs to the Commonwealth.

Evidence of discrimination by these companies came to the OCR from Housing Rights Initiative, a national nonprofit housing watchdog group dedicated to promoting fair and lawful housing practices. HRI conducted a series of fair housing tests wherein callers posing as prospective tenants (“testers”) contacted housing providers.

On recorded phone calls that OCR alleges to be discriminatory, staff for the real estate companies told the testers outright that they do not accept Housing Choice Vouchers. Attorney General Herring alleges that rejection constitutes direct evidence of illegal housing discrimination based on source of funds.

Housing assistance and non-discrimination

The Housing Choice Voucher Program (sometimes referred to as “Section 8”) was enacted nationally in 1974 to enable low-income Americans to live in private, market-rate housing. Since then, Vouchers have been used by millions of people, many of whom are Black, single mothers, people with disabilities, or seniors. A Housing Choice Voucher empowers families to choose to live in thriving, integrated neighborhoods of opportunity, but the program only works when landlords in those neighborhoods allow Housing Choice Voucher holders to apply.

For far too long, housing providers have shunned Housing Choice Voucher holders, effectively locking those families in unsafe, disinvested neighborhoods, and consequentially, cycles of intergenerational poverty.

Since 2020, the Virginia Fair Housing Law has specifically outlawed housing discrimination based on source of funds, making it illegal for landlords to refuse prospective tenants or treat tenants differently simply because they rely on vouchers or other forms of housing assistance. Despite this, Defendants have failed to comply by categorically refusing to rent to tenants with Vouchers.

“These lawsuits against 29 discriminatory real estate companies illustrate that strong tenant protections along with partnerships between housing non-profits and proactive government agencies are the secret ingredients for protecting vulnerable tenants against housing discrimination. Without the Virginia Fair Housing Law and the Virginia Attorney General’s office, our organization would have never been able to shine a light on these pervasive and unlawful housing practices. We hope our investigation, this lawsuit, Virginia’s anti-discrimination laws, and our partnership with the Attorney General’s office serves as a housing enforcement model for the rest of the country,” said Aaron Carr, Founder and Executive Director of Housing Rights Initiative.

“The Virginia Fair Housing Office is proud to partner with the Office of the Attorney General in enforcing equal housing opportunities. Working together, we will promote understanding of and compliance with the source of funds protection, to benefit housing providers as well as residents and neighborhoods across Virginia,” said Lizbeth Hayes, Virginia Fair Housing Office Director at the Department of Professional & Occupational Regulation.