By Juliette Fairley

The New York Post
May 14, 2005

In the three years that Ricardo Franco has been a broker with Century 21 Milestone in Jamaica, Queens, he has had homeowners ask him to show their homes only to potential buyers from a certain group. The 33-year-old real-estate agent turned down the business as a result.

“Landlords and homeowners will ask you not to bring in blacks or gays or families with small children, and I have to inform them that they’re in violation of Fair Housing rules,” Franco says. “You can’t do business that way and expect to succeed. Sooner or later it catches up with you.”

Federal, state and city Fair Housing laws prohibit discrimination in the rental, purchase or financing of housing based on a number of factors, such as race, color, creed or national origin.

There are two points of special interest if you’re renting out part of your house. One is that the categories protected by the city, state and federal law are different. The other is that there are some exemptions for small homeowners.

Let’s take the second fact first – the exemption is known as “Mrs. Murphy’s boarding house” and it means that if you live in a one- to four-family house, it’s assumed that you want some knowledge of your neighbors.

That exemption is broken, however, if you start to advertise your vacancy.

So if you’re a little old lady renting out your upstairs unit, you can tell your friends you’re looking for a nice, quiet female tenant. But you can’t use those words in a newspaper ad. “Apartments in one- to four-family houses have a right to a certain amount of privacy, so they have a certain amount of discretion, but once you enter the public sphere of advertising, it’s over,” says Reginald Evans, the director of operations for the Office of Community Partnerships, a division of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Because of federal civil rights laws, it’s never legal to discriminate on the basis of race. It is OK for landlords to discriminate on the basis of income, as long as you don’t set different standards for different applicants. (As brokers like to say, the only color you can discriminate on the basis of is green.)

“They have to choose the person based on their ability to pay and that’s it. They can’t choose them based on anything else,” says Fillmore Realty CEO John Reinhardt. “Check their credit score, check that they have a job, get a letter from their previous landlord saying that they paid or did not pay their rent. That’s what we look for.”

Besides race, the other federally protected categories are color, creed, religion, sex, disability, familial status and national origin. Don’t want a tenant with kids? Tough. Legally, you have to accept them if they meet all your other requirements.

New York state protection extends to all those categories, plus marital status, education and age. The city throws in lawful occupation, sexual orientation and citizenship status.

In New York state, potential real-estate brokers are required by real-estate law to take a four-hour class on human rights and fair housing.

“You can’t get a broker’s license without taking at least a four-hour class on the subject. It’s required by every real-estate school,” says Esther Muller, a Manhattan-based real-estate consultant who coordinates continuing education courses and trains brokers for major real-estate companies.

But since New York City residents come from different backgrounds, cultures and countries, Reinhardt requires real-estate brokers from his 20 Brooklyn offices to take seminars to help them live up to Fair Housing standards.

“Some people don’t know they are discriminating, breaking the law. That’s why ongoing training is important because people don’t understand all of the classifications of Fair Housing laws. It used to be just racial and religious classifications, and now sexual orientation is becoming more popular, as well as family status,” says Reinhardt.

Muller hopes to live to see the day when co-ops have Fair Housing laws imposed on their decision-making process.

“The co-op boards need to disclose why they turn people down. We often don’t have a clear understanding as to why co-op boards reject certain people even when an ability to pay has been proven. They don’t have to offer an explanation either. That’s a personal concern of mine.”

If you think you have been discriminated against or are a homeowner with questions concerning your rights under Fair Housing laws, call 311 so you can file a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights.