The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office is accusing four real estate firms of discriminating against low-income renters by denying them the opportunity to lease an apartment because they received public assistance through the Section 8 voucher program.
“I think that there’s these implicit biases that take place within the industry,” said long-time realtor Linda Champion, managing broker for Champion Urban Edge in Boston. “One of it being that Section 8 voucher holders are not good tenants.”
The four companies named by the attorney general are Unlimited Sotheby’s International, Century 21 Annex in Quincy, Free and Clear Realty in Braintree, and Success! Real Estate, also in Braintree.
“I would say about 15 to 20 of my agents had put in inappropriate comments regarding credit score that was required, employment that was required,” said Stephen Webster, president of Success!
Webster says his company has no issue with vouchers.
But he acknowledges his agents did make mistakes in some of their listings, using language that’s considered discriminatory by the state.
“We hired a compliance officer to look at every single property that we list to make sure the comments are correct,” he said.
Free and Clear denies any wrongdoing, and is now considering legal action of its own, saying state resources have been used to “...bully, intimidate and shake down a small and respected business.”
Century 21 Annex says the state is overreaching, and the firm doesn’t think they made any mistakes, although there may have been some miscommunication.
Unlimited Sotheby’s International Realty said in a statement that one agent was identified in the probe and that they are "not currently active with the company." It also said the group and its agents "denounce discrimination of any kind" and commit to treating all people equally. It also noted the has training and a compliance program for fair housing laws.
"The company was not alleged to have engaged in any form of discrimination. The allegations were made against an agent who worked for the company. The agent vehemently denied the allegations but entered into a settlement agreement with the Attorney General’s office."
The attorney general started to investigate after a prospective tenant on the South Shore made a complaint to Suffolk University, which has a program that studies housing discrimination.
“Often she wouldn’t get called back or she was told that the apartments were no longer available when they were,” said James Matthews from Suffolk’s law school. “So it was a very frustrating process for her.
A settlement between the state and the real estate companies has now been reached. In total, the four companies have been fined $110,000.
The brokers will also have to undergo new fair housing compliance training.