UPDATED: 8/29/23, 4:42 p.m.
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A Philadelphia woman is suing one of the city’s largest real estate companies for refusing to accept Housing Choice Vouchers — a violation of the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance.
The suit was filed Friday on behalf of Jennifer Cooper and the Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania (HEC), the nation’s oldest fair housing council.
Cooper, 44 and disabled, waited nearly 15 years to get in the Housing Choice Voucher program but the suit alleges that when she went apartment hunting through OCF this summer, she was told that vouchers were not accepted at any of the more than 3,000 properties the company manages.
This matches test cases that HEC conducted in 2022, in which trained testers expressed interest in rental properties through OCF and others, but were told the property owners did not accept vouchers.
Philadelphia law prohibits housing discrimination based on “source of income,” meaning that if Cooper could pay the rent, the fact that she uses a voucher cannot be a reason to deny her housing.
However, Sari Bernstein of the Public Interest Law Center, which represents Cooper and HEC, says the law is routinely ignored.
“When she had this experience of not being able to rent one of the units, she’s running into what many tenants with vouchers are running into,” Bernstein said, “which is this blatant and explicit discrimination against how they’re planning to pay their rent. And without it, it’s nearly impossible for someone like Ms. Cooper to find housing.”
OCF CEO Ori Feibush defended the company by noting that the Philadelphia Housing Authority's website included a notice that classes required for landlords to become certified to accept vouchers had been indefinitely suspended. He said he therefore thought he was unable to get certified, a claim rejected by PHA president Kelvin Jeremiah.
"Mr. Feibush is being less than genuine," Jeremiah said.
According to Jeremiah, the landlord training was suspended temporarily during COVID but resumed in July. Since then, Jeremiah says, more than 5,000 landlords have taken the class and been certified to accept vouchers. The classes are offered weekly and last about three hours. He says enrollment is usually about 35 landlords per class.
Jeremiah acknowledged the suspension notice was transferred to its new website during a redesign earlier this year, but said it was embedded deep in the site, while "landlord services," including details about the Fair Housing Law and how to qualify to accept vouchers is a link on the homepage.
Feibush, though, said the process is overly cumbersome and is at fault for discouraging landlords from taking vouchers.
“The whole process is incredibly maddening and puts a prospective tenant with a Housing Choice Voucher at a profound disadvantage,” Feibush said. “I look at this complaint with skepticism because if the intent is to help folks, the blame lies squarely on those administering the program.”
Philadelphia City Councilmember Jaime Gauthier welcomed the lawsuit. As chair of the Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless, Gauthier held a hearing in March that found widespread discrimination against vouchers, including a 2018 Urban Institute study showing that 67% of landlords in Philadelphia refuse to accept vouchers.
“I stand in solidarity with Jennifer Cooper and the countless other Philadelphians using Housing Choice Vouchers that endure chronic, illegal housing discrimination,” Gauthier said.
“I understand that changes may need to be made to the Housing Choice Voucher program to make it easier for landlords to participate but Philadelphians using housing vouchers deserve the freedom to look across the city and use their voucher wherever there is a vacancy.”
Also named in the suit are WATERMILL LOFTS ACQUISITIONS LLC, Patrick Campbell, Shanley Campbell, Tan Joseph, 1300 South 19th Street Investment Partners LLC, 1249 South 21st Street LLC, Jason Bernstein, Jana Bernstein, 2115 63rd LLC, and P.F.N. Associates LLC-2.
The complaint was filed with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which enforces the Fair Practices Ordinance, and will conduct an investigation.