ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. — Todd Vaarwerk is all too familiar with housing discrimination.
He experienced it nearly 30 years ago as a college student looking for his first apartment.
"I had gone to look at an apartment in the University Heights District and they had agreed to rent to me, and I had moved heaven and earth to pay the first month and security deposit,” said Vaarwerk, now chief policy officer with the WNY Independent Living Center. “I'd gone back to my dorm to pack and prepare only to find that they'd messengered me back my check to tell me that they didn't feel comfortable renting to me because as a person with a disability who ideally would live alone. Something could happen to me and they didn't want to be legally responsible.”
Three decades later, Erie County is enacting a law to make sure something like that never happens again, as County Executive Mark Poloncarz signed the Erie County Fair Housing Law Thursday.
“Housing laws do exist but, unfortunately, landlords and sellers were using ways to get around those laws," Poloncarz said.
While the federal law was in place, the county was facing a spike in discrimination cases due to its large immigrant community.
"We were seeing issues especially in the most recent time with all the discourse in the country with regard to individuals based on their citizenship status,” Poloncarz said. “Buffalo is a welcoming community when it comes to refugees and immigrants but unfortunately not everyone is as welcoming as we would like them to be.”
"With the additional classes of source of income, gender identity and expression and immigrant refugee status, Erie County has demonstrated that fair housing is a priority and all are deserving of it," said DeAnna Eason, HOME Executive Director.
Poloncarz says all suspected discrimination cases reported to the county will be investigated. Anyone found guilty of housing discrimination could face legal action and possible fines.