Washington –  Travelers Insurance Co. is being sued over allegations it has refused to insure properties that house federally subsidized low-income tenants  — and other insurers in Connecticut may have done the same.

Citing incidences in the poorest neighborhoods of Washington D.C., Travelers is being sued by the nonprofit National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA,) a national group that fights housing discrimination.

But “it’s much more widespread than Travelers,” said Erin Kemple, executive director of the Hartford-based Connecticut Fair Housing Center.

Travelers Tower in Hartford. Wikipedia

Two other insurers have been sued for similar practices in Hartford, Willimantic and Stamford. But the lawsuit in Washington D.C. is likely to have the most impact.

Like Connecticut, Washington D.C.’s housing laws are stricter than federal law, prohibiting discrimination against a tenant’s sources of income, such as federal Housing Choice Vouchers that subsidize rent payments for the poor.

The NFHA lawsuit against Travelers alleges that the insurer declined to write policies for landlords who had voucher tenants — a policy affecting black people and women the most. The lawsuit alleges violations of the Fair Housing Act and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act.

Travelers, which has about 7,000 employees in its Hartford location, tried to have the suit dismissed, arguing that the NFHA has no standing. But U.S. District Judge John Bates rejected that argument this week and said the case should move ahead.

Shanna Smith, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, said five “testers” posing as prospective purchasers of a four-unit apartment complex in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington D.C. spoke with a number of insurance brokers between July 2015 and February 2016.

Seeking coverage for the fictitious apartment building, the testers were told repeatedly that Travelers did not provide coverage for landlords whose tenants had housing vouchers.

“Travelers has a policy that they don’t insure these buildings,” Smith said. “But there is no evidence that voucher recipients are higher risks than any other tenants.”

In court filings, Travelers said it had ceased that policy by January of 2015. But Smith said the testers continued to be told by insurance brokers that it was in place after that date.

In 2015, Travelers settled a similar suit filed in San Jose, Calif.

In that case, a landlord had purchased a  property insurance contract with Travelers for the period February 1, 2012, to February 1, 2013.  In August 2012, Travelers allegedly learned that the landlord rented to tenants with housing vouchers.  A few months later, Travelers notified the landlord that it was not going to renew the policy effective February 1, 2013.  The landlord acquired new insurance from a different insurer, but alleged that the premiums were higher than those charged by Travelers.

“Even after they settled the case in San Jose, Travelers continued the policy,” Smith said.

Travelers spokesman Mark Bordonaro said “while we generally do not comment on pending litigation, we note that Travelers provides fair access to all of its insurance products.”

“The level or source of income of a building’s tenants does not factor into our underwriting decisions for commercial building owners,” Bordonaro said.

In Connecticut, discrimination against housing voucher recipients has led the Connecticut Fair Housing Center to file two lawsuits.

One, in state court, concerned a landlord who owned an apartment building on Westland Street in Hartford who sought to get coverage through Mount Vernon Fire Insurance Co. through a broker. He was told that Mount Vernon would not insure his building if 20 percent or more of its tenants had housing vouchers.

Mount Vernon settled the suit by agreeing to end that practice, provide its workers with fair housing training and pay the Connecticut Fair Housing Center $82,000 for legal costs and damages.

In another lawsuit, filed in federal court, the Connecticut Fair Housing Center joined landlords in Willimantic and Stamford alleging American Empire Surplus Lines refused to renew insurance policies or charged higher rates if tenants included voucher recipients.

After a  judge ruled the insurer’s conduct “has a discriminatory impact on housing opportunities,” American Empire settled the case for $425,000 and a promise to no longer consider a tenant’s lawful source of income in its underwriting practices.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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