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.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Comedian Not Laughing Over Alleged Racial Discrimination

Often enough, people who put their homes up for sale decide to stay put after all. If you're in this situation and you haven't yet signed a contract, you should be on good legal footing if you change your mind for a legitimate reason — for example, you can't find another suitable home and you want to keep your children in the current school district.

These are the reasons the sellers of a luxury home in Bridgeport, Illinois gave for suddenly not wanting to sell their house after verbally accepting a $1.7 million counteroffer from comedian George Willborn and his family.

But the Willborns aren't buying it. They believe that the sellers decided not to go through with the deal because they're black, in violation of the Fair Housing Act's (FHA) race-based discrimination ban. In January, the Willborns complained to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), pointing out that the sellers had been trying to sell the house for two years and that their counteroffer was very close to the $1.799 million asking price (reduced from an initial listing of $1.99 million).

HUD issued a charge of discrimination in early August, and the Willborns then elected to have the issue resolved in a federal civil lawsuit. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced that it filed this suit, which seeks unspecified damages against the sellers and their real estate agents.

According to the lawsuit and the initial HUD charge, the sellers told their real estate agents early on that they would prefer not to sell their home to a black family but would do it for the right price.

In addition to the DOJ lawsuit, the Willborns also filed a private federal suit against the sellers last month, seeking $100 million in damages, according to NBC.

If the allegations are all true, how much should the sellers and their agents be ordered to pay for their violations? Are punitive damages appropriate here?

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Large DOJ Settlement Shows How Waiting List Mismanagement Can Prove Costly

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Monday that it reached a $270,000 fair housing settlement with the Housing Authority for the city of Royston, Georgia (RHA), which owns and manages seven low-income apartment complexes there.

According to the DOJ's press release, the RHA maintained a waiting list for its apartments but would often ignore the list in favor of selecting prospects based on race. The DOJ also alleges that the RHA steered black prospects to certain apartments or complexes and offered them inferior rental terms and conditions than prospects of other races.

In addition to the creation of a $270,000 fund, which is intended to compensate tenants and prospects who claim to have been harmed by the RHA's alleged race-based discrimination, the settlement allows tenants who believe they were unfairly assigned to one RHA complex based on race to request a transfer.

When a building has no vacancies, putting prospects on a waiting list is a great way to help ensure people get apartments in a fair manner. But, as this case shows, a waiting list that's not strictly enforced can become a liability trap. Whether the true reason behind a waiting-list exception is racism or mere disorganization, landlords who make such exceptions are likely to find themselves with some explaining to do.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Story of Prospect's Dogged Determination to Rent With Service Animals Highlights Three Key Legal Points

Service dogs are well known for helping people with visual impairments get around — so much so that they've often been referred to as "seeing-eye dogs." But service dogs can also provide much needed assistance to people who have other types of disabilities.

For example, a South Dakota woman with a seizure disorder tried to rent an apartment for her family with two dogs that she claimed were needed to accommodate her disability. But nearly all the landlords she met quickly turned her away on account of her canine companions, according to a recent report from the Rapid City Journal.

It's not clear whether the woman, who has reportedly found temporary housing for her family through friends, will pursue a fair housing complaint against any of the landlords who refused to consider her rental application.

But regardless of what happens now, this story has already brought to light three important legal points that both landlords and renters alike should keep in mind:
  1. Service animals are exempt from no-pet policies. Nothing can stop a landlord from banning pets at an apartment building. But the Fair Housing Act (FHA), as well as several similar state laws (including South Dakota's) requires landlords to consider all accommodation requests from people who claim to need the accommodation for a disability, and grant requests when the underlying need is legitimate and the accommodation is reasonable.

  2. Service dogs aren't just for people with visual impairments. As mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, service dogs often provide help to people with disabilities other than ones affecting vision. In this case, the woman's dogs assist her by howling when she has a seizure, so as to alert people who are nearby and in a position to help.

  3. Tenants aren't limited to one service animal. Very often, tenants need only one service animal to accommodate their disability. But in some situations, only one service animal might not be enough. In this example, the woman claimed she needed two service dogs to help ensure that at least one of them is awake at any given time, since she could have a seizure at any time of day or night.