PITTSFIELD — A Pittsfield landlord illegally discriminated against a mother of three by refusing to rent to her solely because she presented a Section 8 housing voucher, a judge has ruled.
Members of the Niedzwiecki family, which owns 10 units in the Pittsfield area, claimed they had negative experiences dealing with the Berkshire Housing Development Corp. in the past and were unwilling to accept its vouchers, according to the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center.
"The Niedzwieckis' refusal to work with BHCD was an unlawful practice ... regardless of whether they had a business reason for their refusal or whether they rented to tenants with Section 8 vouchers administered by other housing authorities," according to Judge Dina E. Fein of the Western Division Housing Court, in a ruling dated July 25.
The family's attorney, Anthony Doyle, had no comment on the decision Tuesday, but he said he's informed his clients of it and expects a hearing date to bet set within the next couple of weeks to begin the penalty phase of the case.
Ashley Grant, legal director of the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center — which filed the claim — said during the penalty phase it will be determined what the court will award the affected family, though the parties may also reach a settlement among themselves before it goes to a hearing or trial.
The center filed the motion on behalf of a woman who was attempting to use her voucher to move out of a homeless shelter, where she and her three children were living.
The family was forced out of their prior apartment due to a foreclosure proceeding, according to Grant.
After being denied the apartment, the family resorted to remaining in the shelter and took another less-desirable apartment out of fear of losing the voucher, said Grant.
Grant said the family is struggling in the new apartment and they don't feel entirely safe in their neighborhood.
She said housing discrimination, especially discrimination based on Section 8 housing vouchers, is prevalent throughout the state. In the Berkshires, she said, the center sees such discrimination "a lot."
"People have a right to use their Section 8 voucher without fear of discrimination," Grant said. "The court has reaffirmed that landlords cannot pick and choose which housing authorities they will work with when it comes to vouchers."
Grant said, once the center learned of the complaint, it sent "housing testers," out to determine if the basis for denying the apartment was discriminatory.
Grant said the center has trained testers who will respond to claims of discrimination by sending a pair of people to apply for an apartment to determine if a protected group, in this case Section 8 voucher recipients, are being treated fairly.
One application in the test will deliberately be more favorable than the other, apart from its inclusion of a voucher or some other potential basis for discrimination, Grant said.
For example, Grant said another vulnerable group is families with children under 6, which some property owners will decline to rent to, rather than have lead paint removed from their properties.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the housing choice voucher program provides assistance to very low-income families, the elderly and disabled to afford safe and sanitary private housing.
The vouchers are distributed through local public housing agencies.
A housing subsidy is paid to the landlord directly by the public housing authority on behalf of the participating family. The family then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program.
Under certain circumstances, if authorized by the public housing authority, a family may use its voucher to purchase a modest home, according to HUD.
Contact Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249.