January 6, 2023
Equal Rights Center & Sage Ventures Reach a Collaborative Agreement to Ensure Fair Housing Protections in Maryland and Virginia
Today, the Equal Rights Center (ERC) and Sage Ventures (Sage) announced they have entered into a collaboration agreement to emphasize their joint commitment to protecting the rights of prospective renters partaking in a Housing Choice Voucher program. This is the second agreement the ERC has reached this year to promote and strengthen the rights and interests of all voucher holders.
In response to ERC’s outreach, Sage quickly expressed an interest in working with the ERC to ensure compliance with fair housing requirements and best practices in Maryland and Virginia, and to serve as a model for other housing providers seeking to comply with Virginia’s and Maryland’s fair housing laws. The agreement covers all Sage-managed properties in Maryland and Virginia. As a result of today’s agreement, which will last for three years, Sage will:
- Require prospective tenants with vouchers to meet minimum income requirements based only on their portion of the rent and prohibit the application of minimum income requirements in instances where a voucher covers the entire monthly rent;
- Affirm its non-discrimination policy and distribute a statement about the policy to all relevant employees;
- Modify signage at properties to include the following statement: “In accordance with state and local law, this community accepts Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8) and other forms of publicly-funded rental assistance.” in English and Spanish;
- Engage the ERC to provide fair housing training for its leasing agents and property management staff annually for the duration of the agreement;
- Undergo ten compliance tests over the course of the agreement to evaluate compliance with fair housing requirements by Sage leasing and real estate management staff;
- Engage in affirmative marketing to voucher holders;
- Designate at least one employee at each of its Maryland and Virginia properties to be knowledgeable on the HCVP process ; and
- Hold open a unit for which a voucher holder is approved by property management staff while the public housing authority completes the lease up process.
Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs), formerly known as “Section 8”, are government subsidies that enable low-income renters to rent homes in the private market. The largest rental assistance program in the country, HCVs can play a key role in promoting neighborhood integration—if landlords accept them. In 2020, Virginia and Maryland added “source of funds” (in Virginia) and “source of income” (in Maryland) as protected classes under their state fair housing laws, meaning that it became illegal for most landlords to discriminate against potential tenants because they are using an HCV to pay the rent. In 2021, the Virginia Real Estate Board released a guidance document clarifying that if landlords wish to require a minimum income requirement screening tool, they must only apply the requirement to a voucher holder’s portion of the rent, not the total rent. Because eligibility for the voucher program is based on having a low income, inappropriately applied minimum income requirements make it nearly impossible for any voucher holder to submit a successful application.
Minimum income requirements for voucher holders are not allowed under Virginia’s “source of funds” law, as was made clear by recent guidance from the Virginia Real Estate Board. In addition to raising concerns about potential source of funds discrimination, the ERC pointed out that it had concerns that the actions could create a disparate impact on the basis of race since a disproportionate number of voucher holders are African American in the areas where the ERC conducted testing. Working together, and collaborating with, ERC, Sage engaged in a cordial and constructive dialogue with ERC, with the goal of highlighting and enhancing Sage’s dedication and commitment to Maryland and Virginia’s housing laws.
ERC’s Executive Director Kate Scott remarks, “The greater Washington region has some of the most expensive housing in the country. Therefore, it’s critically important that landlords throughout the region have policies in place to make it possible for voucher holders to rent homes. Unfair minimum income requirements screen voucher holders out from good housing opportunities in both Maryland and Virginia, so we’re thrilled that Sage has agreed to step up to the plate and ensure it isn’t happening at their properties. We encourage other landlords to do the same.”
The ERC was represented in this matter by Handley Farah & Anderson PLLC. Partner Matthew Handley commented, “Through this agreement, Sage and the ERC have sent a message to the Maryland and Virginia real estate industry about the policies and practices necessary to ensure that members of our communities who use housing vouchers are welcome in Maryland and Virginia. Sage should be applauded for its actions here, which will serve as a model for the rest of the industry. ”
ABOUT THE EQUAL RIGHTS CENTER: The ERC is a civil rights organization that identifies and seeks to eliminate unlawful and unfair discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations in its home community of Greater Washington DC and nationwide. The ERC’s core strategy for identifying unlawful and unfair discrimination is civil rights testing. When the ERC identifies discrimination, it seeks to eliminate it through the use of testing data to educate the public and business community, support policy advocacy, conduct compliance testing and training, and, if necessary, take enforcement action. For more information, please visit www.equalrightscenter.org.
ABOUT HANDLEY FARRAH & ANDERSON: Handley Farah & Anderson are lawyers who seek to improve the world. Based in Washington, D.C., they fight for: workers deprived of wages, consumers deceived about products, tenants denied access to housing, farmers mistreated by processors, parents deprived of adequate parental leave, investors who were defrauded, small businesses harmed by antitrust violations, persons with disabilities denied access, whistleblowers who uncover fraud, and women and communities of color subject to discrimination.