Tenants Take to the Courts to Protect Their Rights

Low-income renters face many barriers when it comes to finding affordable and accessible housing, especially as some states have begun to return to the pre-pandemic status quo by closing emergency rental assistance (ERA) programs and rolling back tenant protections. Meanwhile, landlords, real estate firms, and even pricing software sometimes create further barriers for the lowest-income people through discrimination and unfair rental practices. But tenants are pushing back. Three recent court cases – in Mississippi, the District of Columbia, and Texas – serve to illustrate the power of tenants in ensuring they are treated fairly and have access to affordable housing.

In Jackson, Mississippi, an apartment rental company, SSM Properties, agreed to pay damages to four tenants following the discovery of a pattern of racial discrimination. As a result of tests conducted by the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi found that SSM Properties had violated the “Fair Housing Act.” Four Black test participants were hired by the Center to act as prospective tenants interested in living in SSM Properties. Upon visiting the property, the test participants experienced racist comments and were lied to about the apartments available to them by a property manager. At the same time, two white testers who visited the property were told by the same property manager that the units denied to the Black testers were in fact available. The property manager has since been fired, and the owners of SSM Properties were required to pay $123,000 in damages and have entered a three-year consent decree to ensure their apartments meet the standards of the Fair Housing Act. While the damages will not fully mitigate the harm done by the property manager, the case will hopefully ensure that future prospective tenants of SSM Properties receive fair treatment.

“Unfortunately, the lack of value placed on Black lives regularly shows up in our housing market,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “This investigation and our past reports have found that disrespectful and discriminatory practices are par for the course for Black people seeking a place to call home. The four African American testers in this case were subjected to dehumanizing treatment that was entirely unacceptable. Because of the testers’ bravery and willingness to serve their communities as investigators, we hope that tenants in the greater Jackson area will now have greater access to more equitable housing opportunities.” 

Likewise, in Washington, D.C., a historic housing discrimination settlement was reached in October. The D.C. attorney general filed a suit in 2020 against the real estate firms DARO Management Services, DARO Realty, and Infinity Real Estate, claiming the firms discriminated against applicants who were Section 8 voucher holders or received other means of rental assistance. The three firms had been documented as refusing to accept applicants with housing subsidies (including Section 8 and rapid rehousing vouchers), had posted advertisements with discriminatory language, and had imposed extra fees on applicants with subsidies in 15 different buildings. In a city where 30,000 residents rely on assistance to afford housing and 95% of Section 8 voucher holders are Black, the three firms had not only broken the law but had perpetuated racist patterns long-plaguing Black people and other people of color. The court found that the companies had violated the District’s “Human Rights Act,” which includes source-of-income protections. As a result, executives from the firms are now permanently barred from managing properties in D.C. and the property management business will be disbanded. 

Lastly, a real estate and property management software company, RealPage, headquartered in Richardson, Texas, came under fire after a ProPublica article examined the company’s YieldStar software, which uses algorithms to generate rental prices that maximize yields for investors. In so doing, the software adversely affects low-income tenants, who already face challenges finding affordable housing. “RealPage’s pricing software suggests new rents daily to landlords for units available in their properties,” explains Uel Trejo Rivera, community equity analyst with Texas Housers. “Unfortunately, this has proven to be detrimental for tenants. In a 2020 study done by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, researchers estimated that for every $100 increase in median rent there was an associated 9% increase in the estimated houseless rate. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that average hourly earnings decreased by 3% over the year when adjusted for inflation. So, in a time when the value of people’s buying power has decreased, combined with the lack of affordable housing nationwide, households are struggling to make ends meet already without having to deal with perpetual rent increases. RealPage prioritizes profit over people by championing rent increases at the expense of increased vacancy rates throughout their properties.”  Using information from ProPublica’s article, renters in San Diego, California, have filed a lawsuit against RealPage and nine of its largest property management clients.

The three court cases show the importance of organizing in ensuring all people have access to safe and affordable housing. As essential but temporary protections and resources from the pandemic are being rolled back, the housing poverty crisis is being exacerbated. Renters are faced with increased evictions, skyrocketing rents, and more barriers to achieving affordable housing. The cases in Mississippi, Washington, D.C., and Texas show that there are still ways for tenants to fight back.