MoFo Takes a Stand Against Housing Discrimination

MoFo pro bono lawyers, along with organizations like the Equal Rights Center (ERC) and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (WLC), are trying to put an end to housing discrimination in all its forms. They are fighting on behalf of tenants seeking necessary repairs, holding landlords responsible for housing code violations, protecting low-income families from unlawful eviction, and assisting subsidy recipients with securing safe and affordable housing.

In October 2018, a MoFo pro bono team—led by senior counsel Brian Busey and associate Timothy Gallivan, along with co-counsel from the WLC—were successful in winning a motion for summary judgment on behalf of the ERC in its housing discrimination claim against Belmont Crossing Apartments, LLC and Oakmont Management Group, LLC (“Defendants”).  The claim was based on Defendants’ refusal to allow prospective tenants to use temporary subsidies for rent and security deposit payments.

The District of Columbia Human Rights Act (DCHRA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of “source of income.” Temporary subsidies are one source of income that individuals rely on to pay for housing costs and, for many who receive them, are a means to avoid homelessness. One such temporary subsidy is the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF), which assists low-income veterans and their families in seeking safe and affordable housing. In a city like D.C.—where the rate of homelessness is more than double what it is in many major U.S. cities—subsidies like SSVF are critically important.

Defendants previously stated to an ERC tester and a Housing Counseling Services employee that they did not accept temporary subsidies, including SSVF, and argued that the policy was motivated by business interests, not discriminatory animus. Washington, D.C. Superior Court Judge John Campbell ruled the management companies’ policies were in direct violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act, D.C. Code § 2.1401.01, et seq. and noted that “the Defendants’ motive is irrelevant ‘when a policy is discriminatory on its face.’”

Judge Campbell’s ruling cited guidance issued by the D.C. Office of Human Rights in 2016 stating that “short term rental subsidies” are a protected source of income under the DCHRA. Judge Campbell found that “[t]here is no rational argument . . . that the [DCHRA] would explicitly include Section 8 vouchers, yet not cover other kinds of housing vouchers or housing subsidies.” Judge Campbell also ruled that vouchers, regardless of their source or duration, are to be treated as a source of income that is protected from discrimination pursuant to the DCHRA.

Brian Busey summarized the importance of the case, noting that “ensuring housing access for everyone is critical to safeguarding human rights in the District of Columbia. Judge Campbell’s ruling that temporary subsidies and short-term vouchers must be accepted as forms of rental payments and security deposits is an important step towards reducing homelessness and ensuring individuals and families are not barred from housing opportunities by discrimination.”

In resolving the suit, both parties entered into a consent agreement and injunction, requiring that: (1) the Defendants cease discriminatory practices on future tenants based on source of income, (2) signage must be displayed on all of the Defendants’ D.C. properties, notifying prospective tenants that they accept short-term vouchers/temporary subsidies as payment for all or part of rental fees, and (3) the Defendants pay monetary remedies in the amount of $310,000 to the ERC to cover all damages and attorneys’ fees.

Read more about the ERC and the case decision here.