Housing discrimination against the undocumented?

He says his DACA status kept him from buying a house. Advocates say cases like that are rising
Credit: (Courtesy of Fernando Aparicio-Rojas)
Fernando Aparicio-Rojas, of Middlesex County, works as a medical laboratory scientist in New York City. He said his bids on a house he wanted to purchase were not accepted due to his immigration status.

Fernando Aparicio-Rojas has been on the hunt for months for a house he could buy that his mother, two younger siblings and he could move into and finally realize a dream he’s had since he was a child.

But Aparicio-Rojas’ journey to become a homeowner hit a snag recently when three different bids he made on a house in Union Township were not accepted. The listing agent indicated to him, Aparicio-Rojas said, that the reason was because of his immigration status. Aparicio-Rojas was born in Mexico and is undocumented, but he is shielded from deportation under a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The federal program has allowed him to work legally in the U.S. for years, most recently as an essential worker in a lab in New York City where he analyzes samples and performs tests to diagnose illnesses, including COVID-19.

“We were wondering why they kept denying our offer until she wrote those [text] messages to my realtor,’’ Aparicio-Rojas said. “Clearly it’s because she is discriminating [against] me based on my DACA status, which has nothing to do with my income and profession.”

Aparicio-Rojas posted the listing agent’s texts on his Instagram account, and that post has received more than 1,300 likes, with some others adding their tales of alleged housing discrimination. Mayiyi Sevilla, the real estate agent who has been helping him look for a house, said she plans to file a complaint with the New Jersey Real Estate Commission.

“Just because he is DACA that shouldn’t put a limit on him,’’ Sevilla said. “I’m angry because you shouldn’t do this to another human being. I’m sad to see other people treat others like this, and I’m sad for my client because I know how much he wanted the house.”

Housing discrimination complaints on the rise

Despite the existence of federal and state laws that guard against discrimination when buying or renting, complaints that have alleged housing discrimination based on immigration status and national origin have occurred for years. Advocates who work against housing discrimination said those numbers have grown.

“Undoubtedly this happens far more often than we know or read about,’’ said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the Immigrant Advocacy Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, which has filed complaints on behalf of immigrants alleging housing discrimination due to their immigration status. “But it’s sadly super common to discriminate against folks, who we use the term for as under documented, not undocumented, because they are not undocumented, they have a legal Social Security number, and they have work permits and some have permission to live in the United States.”

Rachel Wentworth, executive director at the Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania, said many undocumented immigrants who experience such discrimination are afraid to come forward. She said cases of this type are usually referred to her office by other social service agencies.

“We certainly have had lots of different types of housing discrimination arise that have immigration status as an aspect of the case,’’ Wentworth said, noting they currently have a couple who were refused a rental because the wife did not have a Social Security number.

Federal housing laws

Sandoval-Moshenberg added there have been class-action suits against banks for discriminating against DACA recipients in lending and said that what Aparicio-Rojas experienced is against federal housing laws.

“It could be considered different treatment on the basis of national origin, but it would also cause a disparate impact against Latinos in their relevant community because Latino folks are more likely to have DACA than white prospective homebuyers,’’ he said. “This is such an obvious no-no that I’m very surprised that the realtor or seller is doing that.”

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability. Such discrimination is illegal regardless of the victim’s immigration status, according to information from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

NJ doesn’t protect immigration status

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, or LAD, prohibits discrimination when selling or renting property. Renters or buyers cannot be chosen based on their race, creed, color, national origin, nationality, ancestry, marital status, familial status, affectional or sexual orientation, sex, or mental and physical disability under the law. But immigration status is not a protected class under the state LAD law.

Wentworth said if Aparicio-Rojas files a complaint, it would likely be looked at as discrimination because of national origin, and not immigration status.

“Typically, in anti-discrimination cases, immigration status is not a protected class, but those type of complaints would fall under national origin,’’ Wentworth said. “People have the right to not be discriminated against regardless.”

Qualifying for a mortgage

In the U.S., a citizen from another country or undocumented immigrant can buy and own property. In order to qualify for a mortgage, a borrower needs either a Social Security number or a taxpayer identification number. As a DACA recipient, Aparicio-Rojas has a Social Security number.

While New Jersey’s real estate market soared amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Aparicio-Rojas gathered his financial documents and proof of identity to apply for a preapproved mortgage, which he received. He then searched the internet for properties in his price range. He made multiple offers with no success.

The house in Union Township was first listed in June, and soon after caught his and his mother’s interest. It had a big yard and hardwood floors, and it was a five-minute drive to the train station, which would shorten his daily commute into the city.

“My mom fell in love with it,’’ Aparicio-Rojas recalled.

The price of the two-story house dropped to $410,000 in July, and Aparicio-Rojas made a bid higher than the asking price. But another offer was accepted, which he said he had gotten used to in his search for a house in a hot housing market. When he saw the house relisted a few weeks later, he made another offer, but again he was outbid. His third bid was $40,000 more than the asking price, he said, but still it wasn’t enough to get the house.

Late last month after he made the third bid, his real estate agent, Sevilla, asked the listing broker if there was something specific that the owner of the property didn’t like about Aparicio-Rojas’ offer. That’s when she received the answer in a text that read “Due to the fact that it is a daca client.”

Tatiana Gomez, of Premier Homes, the real estate agent listed for the house, referred questions to her lawyer, but declined to name her attorney.

Sevilla noted in her exchange with Gomez that Aparicio-Rojas was not using any sort of special loan available to DACA recipients. Instead, Aparicio-Rojas said he plans to get a conventional loan.

Federally insured home loans

In January, after President Joe Biden was sworn into office, it was announced that federally insured home loans would be available to DACA holders. Those loans are usually preferred by first-time homebuyers. Previously, the Federal Housing Administration guidelines stated that people without legal residency were ineligible for those types of mortgages.

Aparicio-Rojas said he’s not sure how the listing agent knew of his immigration status, since he didn’t write that information on anything that was submitted with the bid. But he has been involved in immigrant advocacy for years and wondered whether she had seen his picture and read his story somewhere.

Aparicio-Rojas arrived in the U.S. from Mexico when he was 6 years old. He was raised by his mother, who worked long hours at a restaurant to provide for her three children. When Aparicio-Rojas was in high school and old enough to work, he did. He held various jobs as a teenager, including working as a busboy in the restaurant where his mother also worked.

In search of something better

When he began taking college courses at Rutgers University in Newark, he held jobs at factories and warehouses, which helped him pay for his part-time studies as well as assist his mother with daily expenses. At the warehouses, he said he worked with older immigrants who encouraged him to not work so much and to focus on his studies and getting a degree. He was also in search of something better.

“I was tired of also feeling like I was capable of doing more even though I was being limited,’’ Aparicio-Rojas said. “So, I knew that I had to get either a certificate or something. That’s when I decided to get my certificate as a pharmacy technician to work in a pharmacy.”

He worked at Walgreens for a few years, working extra hours whenever he could. The job paid better and allowed him to take more courses at Rutgers and graduate in May 2020.

“It took a lot of sacrifice. Without me graduating from college there’s no way we could have thought of buying a house,’’ he said. “My brother and sister always shared a room since they were little. Hopefully in a year or two I can attend medical school, but I know if I ever went to medical school … I know at least my family would have a house.”

The road to buying a home

He received a degree in clinical laboratory sciences and had secured a position in New York City before graduation. His first day was a few months after COVID-19 caused widespread shutdowns of businesses, but Aparicio-Rojas was an essential worker and would travel to the city and work 60 to 70 hours a week for months at a time. The days were long, but every hour he worked, Aparicio-Rojas thought, he was closer to being able to put a good-sized down payment on a house.

In January, before he received the COVID-19 vaccination, a regular test conducted at work for employees came back positive for the coronavirus and he was told to go home. Aparicio-Rojas worried and wondered whether he should go to a hotel, as he feared that he could expose his family. The apartment in Middlesex County where he lives is small, and social distancing was going to be a challenge.

“I was like, I can’t go home because it’s an apartment, I am going to be using the same bathroom, I’m going to be in the same living room — it’s literally just one floor,’’ he recalled.

Before he headed home, he asked his employer to test him again, hoping that his hunch that it was a false positive was correct. A second test showed that he was negative, and he was able to go back to work and to his apartment.

But the incident brought to the forefront the need for his family to have a larger place to live, he said, and it made him more determined to buy a house.

Even though Aparicio-Rojas said he was disappointed with the outcome of the attempted Union Township house purchase and is considering speaking to an attorney, he is hopeful that he will buy a house soon. Late last week, he said, he was looking to put an offer on a house in Roselle Park.

“The train station is only 3 minutes away,’’ he wrote in a text message to NJ Spotlight News. “Which is amazing. So happy.”

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