Woman wearing blazer talking to a student.

If given the choice: The fight for fair housing in Western NY

“Fair housing” means choice. It is housing without discrimination based on race, color, national origin, and other protected identities. It is a chance for tenants and homeowners of all ethnicities, faiths, gender identities, and disability statuses to choose a neighborhood that matches their needs. 

These concepts are enshrined in the Fair Housing Act, a ground-breaking civil law at the center of Associate Professor Heather Abraham’s work. Abraham directs UB School of Law’s Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic. Together with student attorneys, the Clinic advocates for housing equity through litigation and policy advocacy.

That advocacy has been recently celebrated by one of the Clinic’s clients, the Buffalo-based nonprofit Housing Opportunities Made Equal. HOME honored Abraham with its Change Now! Award, recognizing her fair housing leadership and the Clinic’s ongoing efforts to promote housing choice.

While Abraham’s students provide invaluable legal services during law school, they also share a commitment to fighting discrimination well into their post-law school lives. Now in her fourth year at the law school, Abraham continues to cultivate a network of passionate UB Law attorneys who are making a difference in Buffalo and beyond.

UB Law Links asked Abraham to elaborate on some of the key facets of this important work.

watch video where Prof. Heather Abraham comments on the Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic's partnership with the fair housing organization, Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME).
three people, smiling, one holding a glass award.

Prof. Heather Abraham with DeAnna Eason, Executive Director, HOME and Daniel Corbitt '14, Esq., Associate Director, HOME.

Tell us more about the work your clinic has been doing with HOME.

Our multi-year collaboration has many dimensions. In litigation, we represent HOME and accept individual client referrals. Earlier this year, we won an appeal at the Fourth Department in an important precedent-setting fair housing case. In that case, HOME had discovered that a local landlord was discriminating against people with government vouchers to pay their security deposits. That program is specifically designated for low-income renters. Instead of accepting the vouchers, the landlord required the tenants to pay an additional cash deposit, amounting to 150 percent of the security deposit. We challenged a lower court’s incorrect reading of the state law and won a unanimous reversal. 

As we build a body of legal precedent protecting renters from this “source of income” discrimination, we hope to educate landlords and the courts on these important civil rights protections. Success would mean that fewer people will be denied housing based on illegal and harmful stereotypes about people with government assistance like housing vouchers or Social Security disability payments.

We also engage in policy advocacy for HOME, like our fair housing plank on the Partnership for the Public Good’s Community Agenda. For two years in a row, our community partners have voted our proposal to reduce housing segregation as a “top 10” policy priority.

 Tell us more about how you became a fair housing attorney and how you are exposing students to the practice. Do graduates go on to practice housing law?

I was first introduced to fair housing law by a mentor law professor. It really captivated me. Fair housing combines civil rights and housing. It’s a well-developed yet underappreciated area of law. In recent years, fair housing has finally emerged from the shadows of Title VII (employment discrimination) litigation as more people recognize that we cannot achieve a racially equitable society without housing equity. Over a decade later, I’m still fascinated by fair housing law!

I’ve worked with dozens of students on fair housing and other housing cases. Nearly every week, we’re in housing court. Many of our graduates work in housing law in some capacity. Some choose it as their full-time work. Others volunteer for Attorney of the Morning, representing people facing eviction, and others are in private practice in mid-size and large firms with pro bono practices. One 3L student who is particularly enamored with fair housing has designed a fellowship proposal to tackle the issue of the racial homeownership gap, in partnership with HOME and the National Fair Housing Alliance. Another student recently joined the Division of Human Rights investigating fair housing complaints. I’m excited to see where our future graduates invest their talents!

Your research shows how some zip codes are correlated with shorter life expectancies and health issues like lead poisoning. What’s the solution to this equity problem?

Social determinants of health are a central part of the fight for fair housing. This is especially true in a city like Buffalo, which has very old housing stock. 

The “solution” is multifaceted. It requires more intentional investments in building and renovating affordable housing. Our housing supply is woefully inadequate compared to demand, which is quickly driving up prices and driving lower-income renters and buyers into inferior housing, some of which is no longer suitable for habitation. My work focuses on how government, in collaboration with private partners, can engage in race-conscious community planning that positively influences quality of life. This means we need to rethink where we invest in transportation and where we draw school boundaries, and revisit antiquated and exclusionary zoning. These decisions – which are primarily local decisions - can make a significant difference in everyday life and for generations to come, particularly for communities of color.  

Our region has a long history of racial segregation in housing. Do you encounter public complacency in the face of that history, or is there the political will to remedy it?

Since relocating to Buffalo nearly four years ago, I’ve observed the full spectrum of public responses to housing segregation. 

Regrettably, while I think our history of segregation is undeniable, there are people who disclaim any responsibility to remedy it. My sincere hope is that more people will recognize that we all have a role in addressing racial segregation. It’s not inevitable. Segregation is a product of decades of design, so it will take decades of intentional redesign to dismantle it. 

The reality is that our country has never, in any meaningful way, attempted to dismantle housing segregation. The work has not been done. There are case studies suggesting a lack of political will in some places and at some times in our history. However, until we try, I cannot say that we truly lack the political will.  

In addition to your fair housing work, you’ve been active with the Buffalo Affordable Housing Task Force in addressing affordability issues. Tell us more about the task force’s work and your role in it. 

As a fair housing attorney, I joined the task force to underscore the problem of extreme racial inequity in the housing market. 

Eviction policies disproportionately harm communities of color. The New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (with my UB Law colleague Professor Athena Mutua as vice chair) recently highlighted this problem in a searing report, “Racial Discrimination and Eviction Policies and Enforcement in New York.” 

Similarly, my research on appraisal discrimination illustrates how historic and ongoing discrimination in housing valuation harms homeowners of color and predominantly non-white neighborhoods. 

The task force is a diverse group of Buffalo residents. We have been meeting since early 2023 to identify some of the intervention points for mitigating the housing crisis. We just issued our first of two reports, which recommends immediate steps that the Common Council can take to better enforce existing laws. I’m especially thrilled that the report builds on research conducted by UB Law students. Task force members are eager for the Common Council to act on our first set of recommendations.