The D.C. Housing Authority administers vouchers to low-income residents.
The D.C. Housing Authority administers vouchers to low-income residents. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

A new lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court alleges that a decades-old regional real estate firm and its affiliates are violating local and federal civil law by not renting to residents who hold government-issued rental-assistance vouchers, a “protected source of income” in the District.

The Equal Rights Center is suing The Lenkin Company Management, Inc. and related entities after the D.C.-based nonprofit performed multiple discrimination “tests” across four residential properties Lenkin operates in Northwest. According to the lawsuit, testers for ERC called the company inquiring about the availability of apartments for low-income households who use Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly known as Section 8 Vouchers) to pay their rent. In six instances from July 2015 to March 2016, Lenkin representatives reportedly said the company did not accept these subsidies as payments.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program is the largest rental-assistance program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and coordinates with local housing authorities across the country. The program was designed to allow low-income families to find safe and decent affordable housing outside of areas of concentrated poverty. It can’t fully achieve this goal when landlords deny applicants on the basis of having a government subsidy. Local governments that receive HUD funds are also obligated to promote what’s known as “fair housing” and identify strategies to bolster racial integration.

ERC’s argument against Lenkin is twofold. First, D.C.’s Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on “source of income”or where residents get their rent money. Second, both the DCHRA and the federal Fair Housing Act bar discrimination in housing on the basis of race. The nonprofit contends that Lenkin is flouting these laws since 92 percent of D.C. residents who use Housing Choice Vouchers are African American, while one percent are white. In absolute terms, per the lawsuit, that amounts to roughly 10,800 African American voucher holders and only 120 white ones. Seventy percent of all District voucher holders reside east of the Anacostia River.

The complaint claims that Lenkin’s alleged non-acceptance of voucher-holding residents means that the company “is 71 times more likely to exclude and adversely impact African American renter households than white renter households.”

ERC brought the suit through its attorneys at WilmerHale and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. They argue that ERC has legal standing to sue because Lenkin’s alleged practices are forcing the organization to “commit scare resources … to ameliorate the effects of Defendants’ discrimination against Housing Choice Voucher holders and to prevent the recurrence of discrimination in the future,” in line with its mission. ERC is asking the court to declare that Lenkin’s alleged practices are illegal and to enjoin the company from continuing them.

“Source of income discrimination in the District is a pernicious and persistent problem that creates unnecessary and unlawful barriers to meaningful housing choice for Voucher holders and which perpetuates racial and economic segregation,” WLC Executive Director Jonathan Smith says in a statement. “For too long, landlords have refused to rent to Voucher holders, which contravenes the Voucher Program’s goals and makes our communities less integrated and less equitable.”

City Paper has reached out to The Lenkin Company’s corporate office for comment. We will update this post if we hear back. The parent company was founded in 1929 and owns several multifamily apartment buildings as well as commercial properties throughout D.C.

In the District, the D.C. Housing Authority distributes low-income rental vouchers. It was announced earlier this week that its current executive director, Adrianne Todman, will depart the authority for a new job that starts June 1.

Update, April 21: The Lenkin Company provided the following statement in response to the lawsuit: “We take this matter very seriously, and are investigating the allegations in the complaint. The allegations do not reflect who we are as a company, and in fact are contrary to our regular fair housing training. The allegations are not the way we’ve always conducted our business. As a company we do not tolerate discrimination.”