Twenty realty groups and individuals are being accused of discrimination in a new lawsuit after a national housing watchdog initiated a sting operation to see if they accept federal housing vouchers.

Researchers posed as renters and asked brokers via text whether they accept Section 8 vouchers, the federal government’s program for assisting low income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Many were told no, according to the lawsuit, which includes many screenshots of those interactions.

“What we found was that many real estate companies are illegally discriminating against families with housing vouchers, committing mass civil rights violations,” said Aaron Carr, founder and executive director of Housing Rights Initiative, the national housing rights group that conducted the survey.

Carr said that they didn’t target any specific brokerage firms or landlords and instead went on real estate listing websites to independently determine which units were eligible for housing vouchers. Then investigators reached out to several hundred landlords and brokers to “determine compliance” with fair housing laws.

The lawsuit was filed on Wednesday in Suffolk County Superior Court. Major landlords like Charlesgate Realty Group, Harvard Ave Realty and East Coast Realty were among those named in the suit. GBH News reached out to all companies and individuals named in the suit. A spokesperson for Prestige Real Estate, doing business as LAER Realty Partners, said the organizations don’t comment on pending litigation. Other organizations didn't reply to requests for comment.

A text message chain between Gwen and Olesea. Gwen asks if a rental unit accepts section 8 housing vouchers. Olesea said "Unfortunately, vouchers are not allowed for this building. So sorry!"
Messages show a broker for 219 Commonwealth Ave #44 telling a “prospective tenant” — a tester for Housing Rights Initiative — that Section 8 vouchers are not accepted at the property.
Screengrab from complaint filed in Suffolk County Superior Court

In one instance last July, a Housing Rights Initiative tester contacted Charlesgate Realty Group about an available apartment at 219 Commonwealth Ave #44, Chestnut Hill, listed on Trulia. Zee 219 Commonwealth LLC owned the apartment, which was listed at $2,900 monthly.

The tester sent a text message to the listing’s phone number — a broker — and asked if a voucher could be used, and was told it wouldn’t be accepted.

Under Massachusetts state law, it is illegal for housing providers to discriminate against an individual who is a recipient of state, federal or local public assistance and those receiving housing subsidies, including rental assistance.

With housing vouchers, federal, state and local authorities subsidize rent in the private market, with the tenant paying 30% of their income in rent, while the government covers the rest.

“Refusing to rent to voucher holders prolongs the time that families and children have to spend in homeless shelters, on the streets or in substandard housing,” said Jacob Love, staff attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights, which is representing Housing Rights Initiative in the lawsuit. “It also entrenches Boston’s segregated housing patterns by preventing people from being able to secure housing outside of segregated neighborhoods.”

Carr said housing companies can’t discriminate against families based off their sources of income, and the results of the investigation are particularly alarming and important against the backdrop of homelessness and housing strain in Boston.

“When tenants are unable to use their housing vouchers, they remain homeless, which is not just bad for voucher holders. It is bad for taxpayers because homelessness is extraordinarily expensive,” Carr said.

As of November 2023, the Federal Housing Choice Voucher Program was assisting more than 90,000 households across Massachusetts, according to Love, with the majority of those being seniors, children or people with disabilities. A parallel program through the state has about 10,000 households statewide.

The lawsuit seeks to stop real estate companies from the alleged discriminatory practices, get landlords to set aside units for voucher holders, establish an enforcement monitor for voucher discrimination and have legal fees covered.

Love, with Lawyers for Civil Rights, said that tenants don’t have the resources or bandwidth to file this kind of lawsuit themselves, particularly because they have a 120-day time limit to find housing or they lose their voucher.

Carr said these were not isolated incidents. “It’s part of an industry-wide problem. And from our perspective, industry-wide problems require industry-wide solutions,” he said.

He called it the largest fair housing lawsuit in state history. “This is only the tip of the iceberg,” Carr said.

Love said the practice of posing as a tenant to find information out from landlord goes back to civil rights groups in the 1960s and ’70s, when a white person would pose as an apartment applicant, and subsequently a Black individual would do the same.

“Often the white potential applicant would be told that the apartment is available, and the Black potential applicant would be told that the apartment is not available,” Love said. He said that type of testing is essential to “root out” discrimination.

The lawsuit also mentions a 2020 testing study in Greater Boston by Suffolk University Law School, which found evidence of voucher-based discrimination in 86% of tests, with housing providers — often professional real estate brokers — frequently screening out voucher holders by ending communications with people who asked about housing vouchers.