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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How Do You Pay Rent While in a Coma?

If you're an apartment tenant, you know that paying your rent late or not at all can get you evicted. But what if you normally pay the rent in full and on time, and then a sudden, disability-related coma prevents you from sending a check to your landlord on time? Should the landlord cut you a break?

A tenant in Palo Alto, California found herself in exactly this situation last year -- and got evicted. But now, thanks to a settlement with her landlord reached via a fair housing argument, the tenant is happily back in her building.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, the tenant's daughter let the landlord know about her mother's condition within a week after she was rushed to the hospital. Although the landlord reportedly indicated being okay with getting the rent late, the landlord wasted no time in starting the eviction process. The day she was released from the hospital, the tenant got a money order for the full amount of the rent, but the landlord wouldn't accept it. Then, after not receiving the notice of her court hearing, the tenant learned that a judge ordered her to vacate her apartment.

With a rental history now marred with an eviction, the tenant eventually found a much smaller apartment in another town, at a much higher rent. In addition to the financial difficulties this caused, the move to another town also prevented visits with her daughter, who can't drive due to a visual impairment, and grandchildren.

Fortunately for the tenant, she enlisted the help of Project Sentinel, a local non-profit housing counseling agency, which achieved a settlement by arguing that the landlord violated the Fair Housing Act's (FHA) ban on disability-based discrimination by not accepting the late rent payment. Doing so would have been a "reasonable accommodation," which the FHA requires landlords to make when tenants need such accommodations for a disability.

Without admitting any liability, the landlord agreed to make things right by:

  • paying the tenant $32,000;

  • renting another one-bedroom apartment in the building to her at no more than $500 per month for five years, affording her the opportunity to visit her children and grandchildren;

  • helping her repair her credit rating, which was damaged by the eviction; and

  • enrolling in regular fair housing training for five years at its own expense.

Is this a fair outcome, or is it too little, too late? Have you or anyone you know been in a situation where you had trouble paying the rent because of a disability?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Not Complying And Not Caring

If you're under investigation by the federal government for violating a law, saying that you don't care about the law isn't exactly going to exonerate you or encourage the government to see your side of things.

Recent proof of this is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's September 15, 2009 filing of a Charge of Discrimination against a Barberton, Ohio landlord for alleged violations of the FHA's ban on housing discrimination based both on sex and familial status.

The landlord's questionable act was the posting of an ad on Craigslist for a rental that "MAKES A VERY NICE APT FOR SINGLE GUY TENANT." Fair Housing Contact Service, Inc., a local agency that enforces housing discrimination laws, ultimately filed a complaint with HUD, which then had one of its Equal Opportunity Specialists (EOS) interview the landlord.

According to the Charge, when the EOS explained the provisions of the FHA to the landlord and indicated that the language in the ad may run afoul them, he stated, "I don't care about the Fair Housing Act." With a first impression like that, the landlord helped neither the EOS nor himself, as he didn't give the EOS any reason to take him seriously or give him the benefit of the doubt on the substantive issues.

As for the substantive issues, the landlord's defenses appear weak. He explained that he wrote "single" because he felt the apartment was too small for a family (with a child or children). However, the fact that he rented the apartment to a couple (and not just a "single guy tenant") makes it tough to argue that the apartment was too small to be occupied even by a family of one adult and one child. The landlord also claimed that the neighborhood was unsafe for children and that this justified his exclusion of families. If you follow his logic, however, then no children should be allowed to live anywhere in the neighborhood due to safety concerns.

In issuing its Charge, HUD concluded that "an unknown number of prospective tenants with children and/or who are female were discouraged from seeking a rental opportunity." HUD now seeks a $16,000 civil penalty plus compensatory damages against the landlord. In reviewing the facts of the case to decide a fair outcome, the Administrative Law Judge will know she's dealing not just with a landlord who made a mistake and didn't comply with the law, but with a landlord who doesn't care about that law -- and who, self-injuriously, makes sure the law's enforcers know it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Racism Again Proves Costly As a Marketing Strategy

If having no black tenants at your apartment complex is your selling point, fire your marketer. That's the message the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is sending to landlords by going after the owners and operators of a Davie, Florida apartment complex for refusing to rent to black people — and boasting about their policy to prospective white tenants.

Sound familiar? That's because the same type of racial marketing strategy was allegedly recently employed at an apartment complex in Alabama, leading the DOJ to file a fair housing complaint against the complex's owner, manager, and maintenance employee (see "Using Racism to Rent Apartments," July 24, 2009).

The owners and operators of the Florida complex have agreed to settle, in light of evidence gathered by DOJ testers that indicate the complex violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by:
  • Directing the property managers not to rent to applicants who even "appear" to be black;
  • Telling white applicants that an advantage of living at the complex is its lack of black tenants;
  • Encouraging white prospects to apply for an apartment while discouraging black prospects from doing the same;
  • Offering to waive costs such as the application fee only for white prospects.

Under the August 27, 2009 Consent Decree, the complex must pay $115,000 to identified "aggrieved persons," plus up to $25,000 in compensation to additional discrimination victims who still may come forward — as well as a $74,000 civil penalty. The complex has also agreed to have its employees undergo fair housing training and take other steps to prevent violations in the future.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Reshaping of Justice Department Implies Increased Fair Housing Enforcement

A report in today's New York Times indicates a significant shift by the Obama administration in the role of the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ) Civil Rights Division.

Attorney General Eric Holder aims to shine the Division's enforcement spotlight on housing and other areas, such as employment, where minorities have been disproportionately treated. The prior administration preferred to focus on individual cases in which there was evidence of intentional discrimination.

In addition to the Division's change in focus, the White House has proposed hiring 50 more lawyers to add muscle to the civil rights enforcement arsenal.

The DOJ and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are the two federal agencies charged with enforcing the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

Do you agree with this shift in the Division's role? Is the hiring of additional civil rights attorneys an initiative that is long overdue, or is it an inappropriate expenditure of taxpayers' money?

What do you think?