Fair Housing vs. Unfair Housing

Do you know the difference?

Knowing the difference between fair housing and unfair housing isn't as obvious as you might think. This blog aims to present a variety of important and interesting fair housing issues.

If you're an apartment professional, avoid costly mistakes by reading the stories of others who — even with good intentions — learned compliance lessons the hard way. (For the easy way, click here.)

If you live in an apartment, get familiar with your rights when it comes to housing discrimination, as well as your options for seeking justice.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Racism + Mistake = Lawsuit

On May 20, 2008, the Department of Justice sued the owner and manager of the Camp Joy Marina — a Louisiana residential community of rental and owner-occupied condominiums and townhouses — for racial discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. According to the complaint, the owner and manager interfered with a couple's attempt to sell their townhouse to another couple the owner and manager mistakenly believed were black. Apparently, a visit to the property by the white couple's black realtor confused the owner and manager. The owner told the realtor he did not want "those kind of people" moving in, and he threatened to cut off the water and sewer utilities. As a result of this interference, the buyers withdrew from their agreement to purchase the townhouse. The government now seeks a court order prohibiting future discrimination by the owner and manager and requiring them to pay monetary damages to the sellers as well as a civil penalty.

Will the government win? Will the fact that the owner and manager were mistaken about the purchasers' race be taken into consideration as mitigating circumstances? Should it?

What do you think?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Discrimination by Gentrification?

In July 2008, a federal judge gave the green light to a fair housing discrimination lawsuit against a Long Island municipality and owners of an apartment building brought by plaintiffs claiming the defendants tried to push a core Hispanic population out of town. The plaintiffs include Hofstra Law School and Hispanic tenants of the Farmingdale, N.Y. building, who had been evicted so that their aging building could be fixed up. While that part might have been agreeable to the tenants, what they didn't find appealing was the fact that the building would be redeveloped for luxury living — along with higher rents, effectively pricing these tenants out of the "Little Latin America" neighborhood. They allege the redevelopment is a maneuver by the Village of Farmingdale to drive Hispanics (including several day laborers) away through gentrification or "upscaling." The Village denies discrimination as a motive, and the owners point to their record of having rented to Hispanic tenants for years, according to a report from Newsday.

Should the plaintiffs have to prove that the Village actually harbored a discriminatory intent in recasting the building as luxury apartments? Would it matter if the plaintiffs can show that the Village treated other aging buildings in its jurisdiction differently? Should municipalities be required or expected to take into consideration the ethnic makeup of a neighborhood before taking actions that could alter it?

What do you think?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Post-Katrina "Penalty" for Dark Skin

According to a 2006 study involving 2,300 individuals conducted by The Washington Post, washingtonpost.com and Shanto Iyengar, director of the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University, Americans feel more willing to provide extended government assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina who are white. The "penalty” for being a black Katrina victim is about $1,000, with participants showing preference for lighter-skinned blacks and other minorities.

Read Richard Morin's June 9, 2006 column in The Washington Post, or read the full analysis of the results, "Natural Disasters in Black and White: How Racial Cues Influenced Public Response to Hurricane Katrina."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mezuzah Mishigas: Reasonable Accommodations for Religion?

On July 10, 2008, a federal appeals court ruled that a Chicago condominium association complied with the Fair Housing Act (FHA) in not making an exception to its “hallway rule” barring owners from placing objects outside their doors. The exception in question concerned the placing of mezuzot (the plural of mezuzah, Hebrew for “doorpost”), which are small decorative cases containing religiously significant parchment that observant Jews are widely known to affix to their doorframe.

The court ruled that the hallway rule didn’t violate the FHA because it’s “neutral with respect to religion.” In other words, the condo association’s ban covers all items without singling out religious ones or items relating to a particular religion. The court likened the request for an exception to “reasonable accommodations,” pointing out that the FHA’s requirement to make reasonable accommodations apply only to people with disabilities. There is no requirement to reasonably accommodate people based on their religion (or sex, race, or anything else) but only a requirement of equal treatment, the court said.

The dissent, however, claimed that the condo association’s refusal to make an exception in this case is, in essence, a “constructive eviction” of observant Jews, who must choose between honoring their faith and keeping their home.

Should reasonable accommodations for people based on characteristics other than disability be required under the FHA? Should the court have ordered the condo association to make the exception on the ground that, while facially neutral, the rule has a “disparate impact” on Jews? Or, should the court have required the exception because it really amounts to intentional discrimination on the part of the condo association?

What do you think?

Interesting to note:

1) By the time the lawsuit was filed, the association’s board had adopted a religious exception to the hallway rule and had instructed its staff to leave mezuzot, crucifixes, and other religious items. The plaintiffs still sued to recover damages for distress they had suffered, plus an injunction to prevent the association from reversing itself.

2) As of December 14, 2005, Chicago has an ordinance that denies a residential building authority to prevent any owner or lessee “from placing or affixing a religious sign, symbol or relic on the door, door post or entrance of an individual apartment, condominium or cooperative housing unit” unless necessary to “avoid substantial damage to property or an undue hardship to other unit owners.”

3) As of January 1, 2007, an Illinois state law requires condo associations to establish a “reasonable accommodation for religious practices, including the attachment of religiously mandated objects to the frontdoor area of a condominium unit.”