Francis Pleto of Amherst said it was not his intention discriminate a year ago when he posted an online advertisement that barred prospective tenants who use government vouchers from renting one the eight apartments he owns and leases in the city’s Riverside neighborhood.
Pleto said he ran into trouble because of stringent guidelines under the federal Section 8 Rental Assistance Program. The apartment he was seeking to rent, while well maintained, did not meet the qualifications for renting to a Section 8 tenant, he said Wednesday.
Pleto is one of two Buffalo landlords that the state Attorney General’s office this week said had reached settlements after acknowledging that they had, in effect, discriminated against prospective tenants on the basis of the tenants’ sources of income.
“I rent out to blacks and Hispanics, both women and men of all races. I have (tenants) with disabilities and all different incomes,” Pleto said.
Still, the results of an attorney general’s investigation found that Pleto had avoided renting to anyone receiving government subsidies over the past three years. In August 2013, he posted an online advertisement on Craigslist that read: “Don’t except (sic) Belmont,” referring to Section 8 vouchers issued by Belmont Housing Resources for Western New York.
However, the City of Buffalo has a 2006 ordinance that prohibits discrimination against prospective tenants on the basis of lawful source of income. That includes discrimination against those who receive government vouchers, as well those who earn income through any legitimate job.
Pleto said he was unaware of the city’s fair housing ordinance at the time he posted the ad. “When you do this kind of business, you buy property and it’s not like there is a school for it, you know. It’s not like they teach you everything. I had no idea about the fair housing law,” he said.
That admission garnered little sympathy from the executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, or HOME, which assisted the attorney general in its investigation.
“Ignorance of the law isn’t an excuse for violating the law,” said Scott Gehl, who for more than 30 years has headed the nonprofit agency that assists victims of housing discrimination across the region.
“If Mr. Pleto did his due diligence as a landlord, he would know what the laws are governing his business. I infer that he probably hasn’t complied with the city’s rental registration law, either, or he should have told at that time about the city’s fair housing ordinance,” Gehl added.
Gehl said that under the Section 8 Rental Assistance Program, rental housing for the recipients of its vouchers must meet federal housing quality standards that are generally in line with what is required by city ordinances.
If Pleto believed that the unit he was seeking to rent was not up to federal housing quality standards, Gehl said that is tantamount to admitting the apartment was substandard.
Pleto was given a $5,000 fine under his settlement with the attorney general. He also agreed to attend a fair housing class at his own expense. Pleto Wednesday lamented that he was not apprised in advance about the city’s fair housing ordinance.
“They made an example of me, which is almost kind of unfair in a way because they didn’t tell me beforehand, you’re not allowed to do this,” Pleto said.
Gehl said discrimination based on source of income is a major problem in Western New York. “It has become the most frequently recorded basis for discrimination in terms of reported cases,” said Gehl, who acknowledged Section 8 tenants have been stigmatized among some landlords.
“I think it comes from prejudice against the poor and the dehumanization of the poor,” he said.
“A majority of the people who are receiving Section 8 subsidies are white and a majority of the people who are receiving Section 8 subsidies are working, but they’re working in jobs that do not produce a livable wage,” he added.