Godinez v. Sullivan-Lackey: Landlord Liable for Refusal to Accept Housing Vouchers

An Illinois appellate court has considered whether a tenant was entitled to recover damages from a landlord who rejected her lease application because she planned to use a Section 8 voucher to pay her rent.

June E. Sullivan-Lackey ("Applicant") participated in the Section 8 rental assistance voucher program created by Congress to aid low-income families in securing housing. The Section 8 program is administered by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, which enters into annual contribution contracts with public housing agencies. The public housing agencies are required to assure that the participating housing units meet a set of quality standards, which are established by the local housing agency and enforced through annual inspections, and also that the rent is reasonable in relation to the local rental market.

The Applicant's apartment failed the annual housing inspection in April 1999. In order to continue receiving her Section 8 voucher, she needed to locate new housing before her vouchers expired. The Applicant learned that there was a vacant apartment in the complex where her daughter lived. The complex was owned by Julio Godinez ("Owner") and managed by his son, Carlos Godinez ("Property Manager").

The Applicant gave a completed rental application and a $25 application fee to the Property Manager. The Property Manager reviewed the application and noticed that the Applicant was unemployed. He asked her how she intended to pay her rent, and she told him that she was going to use Section 8 vouchers. The Property Manager stated that he did not accept Section 8 vouchers because he did not want to be audited. He also told her that she could have the apartment if she paid her rent in cash each month.

The Applicant was unable to secure alternative housing before her vouchers expired. Following the rejection of her lease application, the Applicant filed a complaint with the City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations ("Commission"), arguing that the Owner and Property Manager had discriminated against her by refusing to accept her Section 8 vouchers, in violation of the City of Chicago's Fair Housing Ordinance ("Ordinance"). The Commission found that the Owner and Property Manager had violated the Ordinance and awarded her damages of $5,610, fined the Owner $250, and awarded the Applicant her attorney's fees. The Owner appealed to the circuit court, which reversed the Commission's award on the grounds that the Ordinance did not explicitly cover Section 8 vouchers. The Applicant appealed this ruling.

The Appellate Court of Illinois, First District, reversed the trial court and reinstated the Commission's award to the Applicant. The court first looked at the Ordinance. In relevant part, the Ordinance makes it an unfair housing practice for any "owner…having the right to sell, rent, lease or sublease any housing accommodation…or any agent of these, or any real estate broker licensed as such: A. To make any distinction, discrimination or restriction against any person in the price, terms, conditions or privileges of any kind relating to sale, rental, lease or occupancy of any real estate used for residential purposes, predicated upon…source of income of the prospective or actual buyer or tenant thereof." The Ordinance defines "source of income" as "the lawful manner by which an individual supports himself and his or her dependents". The trial court had ruled that the Ordinance does not explicitly require the acceptance of Section 8 vouchers and so acceptance is not required by the Ordinance.

The court found that the Ordinance includes all "lawful" means individuals use to support themselves. Since Section 8 vouchers are lawful means of support, the court ruled that the Commission's determination that Section 8 vouchers fell within the terms of the Ordinance was reasonable and within the stated policy objective of the Ordinance to encourage equal housing opportunities for all citizens. The Owner and the Property Manager did not present any evidence that the acceptance of Section 8 vouchers would cause them any special financial hardship, and so the evidence supported the Commission's conclusion that they were discriminating against the Applicant by denying her tenancy based on her "source of income". Therefore, the court reinstated the Commission's award to the Applicant and reversed the trial court.

Godinez v. Sullivan-Lackey, 815 N.E.2d 822 (Ill. App. Ct. 2004).