Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic and National Fair Housing Alliance File Federal Lawsuit to Rein in Housing Discrimination

April 23, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a lawsuit filed yesterday, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) joined forces with the Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic to sue a District landlord to challenge a discriminatory practice that contributes to the widespread local and national housing crisis.

The federal lawsuit against real estate company Evolve, LLC, and owner Christopher Swanson alleges that they illegally discriminate against prospective renters who receive federal housing assistance, known as Housing Choice Vouchers or “Section 8.”

“Amidst gentrification and a growing shortage of affordable housing in the District and throughout the nation, low-income families need housing assistance more than ever,” said Lisa Rice, President and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “It’s essential that we curb the widespread practice of denying housing to those with vouchers.”

Following an investigation that revealed discriminatory practices, NFHA filed a complaint against Evolve in April 2018 with the District’s Office of Human Rights (OHR). OHR enforces the D.C. Human Rights Act, which makes it illegal to turn people away because they pay rent with a voucher instead of other income, otherwise known as discrimination based on source of income. In November 2018, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine sued Evolve in D.C. Superior Court.

Housing voucher discrimination is illegal in only twelve states, despite the growing need for affordable housing and demonstrable evidence of discrimination against Housing Choice Voucher users. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are only 40 rental units available per every 100 low-income renter households in the District of Columbia. This lawsuit illustrates how voucher discrimination effectively results in discrimination based on race, national origin, and sometimes gender and familial status (having children).

The suit has the potential to enhance case law around the “disparate impact standard” of housing discrimination upheld by the Supreme Court in 2015. Disparate impact means that housing policies that appear neutral on their face can still constitute illegal discrimination if they have a disparate impact on protected classes of people.

Last year, the Trump administration, through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, started pursuing regulatory changes that many believe will severely restrict the use of the disparate impact standard. If finalized, these changes would remove a vital tool for victims of housing discrimination and alter almost 50 years of fair housing precedent.

“Today, landlords rarely say outright they won’t rent to you because you are African American or a single mother,” said Heather Abraham, supervising attorney at the Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic. “But when Evolve and other D.C. landlords reject families with housing vouchers, these are the protected groups they are turning away. As the Supreme Court has made clear, this is illegal.”

In the District of Columbia, less than half of renters (47.5 percent) are Black, but 92 percent of housing voucher holders are African American. According to the complaint, Evolve’s anti-voucher policy is four times as likely to result in an African American prospective renter being turned away than a White prospective renter. The policy is also more than three times as likely to result in a Latinx prospective renter being turned away than a White prospective renter. It is twice as likely to result in families with children being turned away than those without children.

NFHA and the Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic argue that with housing vouchers, more families of color and families with children would be able to obtain rental housing in low-poverty neighborhoods with high-performing schools, such as Capitol Hill, where Evolve and Swanson lease rental property.

Read the full lawsuit here.