Washington, DC is one of the most racially segregated cities in America. This reality deprives low-income families and communities of color access to safe, decent, and affordable housing, as well as meaningful housing choice. One strategy to combat racial and economic segregation is DC’s Housing Choice Voucher Program. The Program was designed to enable low-income individuals and families to obtain rental housing outside of areas of concentrated poverty and give them greater access to quality economic and educational opportunities. Discrimination against renters who pay a part of their rent with a Housing Choice Voucher—known as source of income discrimination—is illegal, but unfortunately widespread.
And because African Americans make up the vast majority of Voucher holders in the District, “discrimination against Voucher holders is tantamount to racial discrimination,” explains Equal Rights Center Executive Director Melvina Ford. In DC, a refusal to rent to Voucher holders is 71 times more likely to exclude African-American renters than white renters, a disparate impact that violates prohibitions on racial discrimination under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act and the federal Fair Housing Act.
The Equal Rights Center (ERC), through the use of testers—people who query housing providers to test compliance with applicable fair housing laws—discovered that The Lenkin Company Management/Residential, Inc., was refusing to rent to recipients of Housing Choice Vouchers. The tested units were in buildings in Wards 1 and 3 in Northwest DC. The ERC sued Lenkin in April 2017 for its discriminatory rental practices.
In November, the ERC entered into a consent agreement with Lenkin that will increase racial equity in housing and provide access to housing opportunities throughout the District. Among other terms, Lenkin agreed to affirmatively market units to Voucher holders, train two employees to serve as Housing Choice Voucher liaisons to applicants using Vouchers, undergo extensive fair housing training and civil rights testing to ensure compliance with the agreement and the law, and make a payment to the ERC to cover damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs. The Lenkin agreement “represents a critical step toward breaking down the arbitrary barriers that Voucher holders face when seeking housing, barriers which for too long stymied their housing choice and helped perpetuate racial and economic segregation,” says Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs Executive Director Jonathan Smith.
The ERC was represented in this matter by the Committee and WilmerHale.