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Facing Discrimination

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed December 2009

What can I do if a landlord
will not rent to me because I have a Section 8 subsidy?

In Massachusetts, it is illegal for a landlord to discriminate against you because you have a Section 8 voucher.18 If, when you ask landlords whether they take Section 8 vouchers, you are told "no," you may be facing discrimination.

For example, a landlord may say outright that she will not rent to people with Section 8. This is clear discrimination and is illegal. But a landlord may choose not to rent to someone with a Section 8 because the housing agency will not pay the requested rental amount. This is probably not discrimination, even though it seems unfair. In selecting a tenant, a landlord can also look at whether you have the ability to pay your portion of the rent. This is not discrimination either.

Steps to take

If you feel you are being discriminated against because you have Section 8, you need to act immediately and write down exactly what happened.

You should then contact the housing agency that gave you a Section 8 voucher and explain what happened. Housing agencies have a duty to help you if you are prevented from using your Section 8 because of illegal discrimination.19

In addition, you can arrange a test of the landlord. Testing is a method of investigating a landlord's behavior to help determine whether that person is illegally discriminating against you. There are agencies that can help you test a landlord.20 Try to arrange a test on the same day you have had the problem.

If you feel there is enough evidence to show that you are being illegally discriminated against, you can also file a discrimination complaint with a local, state, or federal government agency.21 The housing agency that gave you your voucher must give you information about how to file and fill out a discrimination complaint.22 You can file a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, and you should also call your local Legal Services office.

You may also try to get a temporary restraining order from the court. This is an order from a judge that would prevent the landlord from renting the apartment to anyone else until the discrimination issues have been investigated.23

It is likely that you will need a lawyer to assist you with this process. For more information about how to get a tester, prove discrimination, and file a complaint, see Discrimination.

What if a landlord signs a request for tenancy approval and then decides not to rent to me?

In Massachusetts, some courts have viewed a request for tenancy approval as a binding contract between a landlord and a tenant.24 Therefore, if a landlord chooses not to rent to you after signing a request for tenancy approval, you may be able to go to court and sue the landlord to get an order that you be allowed to rent and move into the apartment. However, the idea of a request for tenancy approval being a binding contract is not a problem the courts have absolutely and uniformly ruled on. This is a complicated area and you should seek the help of a lawyer.

Even if you decide that you do not want to rent an apartment from a landlord who refuses to rent to you after signing a request for tenancy approval, you may still sue that landlord for money damages for breaching a contract and, possibly, for discriminating against you. Suing the landlord may also send the landlord a powerful message that she should not act this way again with another Section 8 voucher-holder. But suing is a difficult process.

Keep in mind that many housing authorities suspend or stop the search time on your voucher when you submit a signed request for tenancy approval. Check with your housing authority to see if your search clock stopped ticking when you turned in the request for tenancy approval.


18 G.L. c. 151B, § 4(10).

19 24 C.F.R. §§ 982.304 and 982.53; NAACP v. Pierce, 624 F. Supp. 1083 (D. Mass. 1985), remanded for remedial order 817 F.2d 149 (1st Cir. 1987).

20 Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363 (1982 Northside Realty Associates, Inc. v. United States, 605 F.2d 1348 (5th Cir. 1979 Meyers v. Pennypack Woods Home Ownership Ass'n, 559 F.2d 894 (3rd Cir. 1977 Hamilton v. Miller, 477 F.2d 908 (10th Cir. 1973 Education/Instruction, Inc. v. Copley Management & Dev. Corp., 1 Fair Hous.-Fair Lend. (P-H) paragraph 15,530 (Mar. 30, 1984), all holding that testing is legal even though testers act under "false pretenses" and that they have standing to sue. Also, HUD funds testing programs through its Fair Housing Initiatives Program, 42 U.S.C. § 3616a(b)(2)(A).

21 Local: Although many cities and towns have fair housing commissions or human rights committees, only a few have enforcement powers. State: G.L. c. 151B, §§ 3, 5, 6 and 8; 804 C.M.R. §§ 1.00 et seq.; Federal: 42 U.S.C. § 3610.

22 24 C.F.R. § 982.304.

23 Federal:42 U.S.C. § 3613(c)(1 Heights Community Congress v. Hilltop Realty, Inc., 774 F.2d 135 (6th Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 475 U.S. 1019 (1986 Runyon v. McCrary, 427 U.S. 160 (1976 Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., 392 U.S. 409 (1968 Moore v. Townsend, 525 F.2d 482 (7th Cir. 1975 Smith v. Sol D. Adler Realty Co., 436 F.2d 344 (7th Cir. 1970 State: G.L. c. 151B, § 9; G.L. c. 93, § 102(b G.L. c. 12, §§ 11H and 11I.

24 See Blanks v. Gray, Hampden Housing Ct. LE-3301-S-87 (Apr. 4, 1988), where a landlord is contractually bound to rent an apartment for which she had signed a "Request for Lease Approval" under the Section 8 program; Delgado v. Stefanik, Hampden Housing Ct. 89-LE-3532-H; and Stefanik v. Delgado, 89-SP-0029-H (Nov. 1, 1989), where someone who has been wrongfully denied an apartment after a contract to rent has been formed can sue the landlord under G.L. c.186, § 15F.

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