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Connecticut Supreme Court hears arguments on Section 8 discrimination case

Frankie Graziano
Connecticut Public Radio

It’s illegal in Connecticut to discriminate against someone based on their lawful income when they’re buying or renting a property. Connecticut is one of 16 states to add that provision under its Fair Housing Act laws. The ban covers the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucherprogram, rental assistance programs and more.

But what is considered discrimination?

A recent case before the Connecticut Supreme Court aims to address that.

“The questions are what does it mean to discriminate against someone with Section 8? What does that look like? And why comments about the process could be discrimination,” said Jeff Gentes with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.

The state Supreme Court heard arguments this month in a case in which the plaintiff argues that a real estate agent's comments about her lawful source of income were discriminatory or had discriminatory intent.

The plaintiff, Carmen Lopez, first brought the complaint to court in 2017 -- the same year she was on a search for a new apartment for her and her two sons. Gentes is her attorney.

Lopez told the court her previous apartment was no longer ideal for her family and she wanted something different. She hired real estate agent Sarah Becker and eventually found an apartment in Danbury that worked. The apartment was listed by Sarah Henry, a real estate agent with William Raveis Real Estate.

The deal seemed promising and an offer was made, according to court documents, but within days, the deal fell through.

Lopez had what’s known as a Housing Choice Voucher, also known as Section 8. The voucher is a government rent subsidy and can cover all or some of the voucher holder’s rent.

When Lopez's real esate agent disclosed to Henry that she’d be paying with the voucher, there was concern about a possible delay. Units under Section 8 must go through an inspection to ensure the property is decent, safe and sanitary at an affordable rate, according to the state’s website.

According to court documents, over several texts, Henry expressed concern over not knowing about the voucher sooner and said she was no longer sure if her client would want to go through the process. Her Client was hoping to rent the unit by a certain date, and she was worried the inspection process might not be able to match up.

In the meantime, court documents show that the unit received another offer, which was accepted the same day. The other offer did not rely on Section 8.

“If a realtor can say those kinds of things, then anytime someone is trying to rent with a section 8 voucher the landlord would say, ‘You know I don't have a problem with Section 8. So I can’t wait and have it empty until then,’” Gentes said.

A trial court ruled in favor of the realtor and the landlord in 2019, stating that there was no discrimination. Lopez appealed the decision.

Gentes said that while Henry didn’t blatantly rule out Lopez because of her lawful income, she expressed a dislike for an essential part of the process. And that’s discriminatory intent, he said.

But Henry’s attorney, Tracey L. Russo, disagrees.

“I don’t think on this record these statements clearly indicated a preference for someone that was not Section 8,” Russo told the state Supreme Court in oral arguments.

She said Henry was doing her job and presented all offers to her client.

“If you’re looking at the chronology of events, Mrs. Henry, my client, sends the landlord a lease from Mrs. Lopez after she knows they’re Section 8,” she said. “If she didn’t want anything to do with a Section 8 tenant, it’s hard to understand why she would have done that.”

She said at the time of making the lease decision, Lopez’s offer lacked paperwork and was incomplete.

“If you look at these statements, [Henry] says, ‘I don’t know if he would want to wait.’ She’s not saying he won’t wait,” Russo said. “What the court makes a point of saying is that it is clear early on that Mrs. Becker assumes there’s a problem with Section 8 ... She never says, ‘What [are] the other offers?’ She never gets into that kind of dialogue.”

During the arguments, the justices said they don’t often hear Section 8 cases. Gentes says it’s rare because people don’t realize there is discrimination, or they don’t have the resources to fight back. But he says it’s important to understand the protections.

“One of the reasons we have source-of-income protections is because it helps ferret out discrimination against Black folks, Latinx folks [and] women with children. Before, instead of saying, ‘I would rather not rent to someone who’s Black,’ they’d say, ‘I don’t rent to people with Section 8.’ And that’s a proxy for other types of discrimination,” Gentes said.

He hopes the court rules in favor of Lopez. He said it could set a precedent and provide better guidance to real estate agents and landlords.

Camila Vallejo is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. She is a bilingual reporter based out of Fairfield County and welcomes all story ideas at cvallejo@ctpublic.org.

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