How the NYC Commission on Human Rights Uses Open Data Against Discriminatory Landlords


The New York City Commission on Human Rights has partnered with the city’s data analytics office for help using open data to go after bad landlords.

One of the lesser-known protections of the New York City Human Rights Law prohibits housing providers from discriminating against potential tenants based on their source of income. The law is meant to protect poor or homeless New Yorkers who secure housing vouchers from being discriminated against for being poor or homeless, but too often landlords ignore the law.

In an article for Gothamist in January, Nathan Tempey reported that it took one man with a housing voucher and a full-time job two years to find an apartment owner willing to rent to him. In a Brooklyn Magazine article a month later, Luke Winkie reported that one woman said she was rejected hundreds of times after obtaining a voucher.

According to the Commission on Human Rights, the city agency responsible for enforcing the Human Rights Law, income discrimination is one of the top three housing-related complaints they receive.

Last year, the Commission stepped up its efforts to counter source-of-income discrimination, filing 120 new complaints in 2016, up from just 22 in 2014. They are currently investigating more than 200 cases against landlords and brokers across the city. As part of this push, the Commission has partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics to help identify additional sites of potential income discrimination.

“The Commission is partnering with the Mayor’s Office for Data Analytics (MODA) to explore how the Commission can use data to enhance its testing program,” the Commission said in a statement provided to Civicist. “During 2016, this partnership allowed the Commission to better identify source of income discrimination in housing. The data has proven to be very helpful in identifying bad acting landlords in different vulnerable communities and the Commission will continue using data to more effectively root out source of income discrimination in housing. No New Yorker should be turned away from housing because of how they pay their rent.”

Although the Commission investigates every allegation of income discrimination that comes in, the partnership with MODA is meant to help expand their inquiries.

MODA analyst Ryan Zirngibl shed some light on how exactly his team is helping inform the Commission’s work.

“We’re trying to identify certain behaviors or certain traits of neighborhoods and buildings…[and] using that to inform the decisions that the Commission was going to make,” Zirngibl explained in an interview with Civicist.

Zirngibl said they draw on four primary data sources: NYPD Seven Major Felonies data; Department of Education School Quality Report data on student achievement scores; Department of City Planning data on land use; and federal Housing and Urban Development data for a count of housing vouchers by census tract.

Together, these sources of information help Zirngibl’s office paint a picture: Here are the neighborhoods with low crime, great schools, lots of apartment buildings—but, suspiciously, no voucher holders live there. This information can help the Commission on Human Rights choose which neighborhoods and buildings to test for housing discrimination. As part of these tests, they send actors to pose as housing applicants with and without housing vouchers to see how they are received by landlords and building management companies. As Tempey reported in Gothamist, the Commission can use the results of those interviews as evidence.

Although the Commission hired additional testing staff last year and conducted more than 300 discrimination tests in 2016, there are still constraints on how much they can do, and their partnership with MODA helps them decide how to allocate scarce resources.

The Commission is exploring other ways in which they can partner with MODA to investigate other forms of discrimination as well.

“The idea is that we want to help put more information in front of them so they can be more effective,” said Zirngibl.

He added that this project is an example of something any journalist or dedicated citizen activist could do with open data, as long as they had the right skills.

“All of the data that we’re using for this project specifically comes directly from the open data portal or other openly available public records,” Zirngibl said. “That was a big piece that our office really liked about it, was that we’re putting this information to use.”