Rental Policies That Fined Families for Kids' Riding Bikes Yields Settlement - Oregon Landlord Fined $65,000

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July 31, 2012
Helen Jung
The Oregonian

When the Sazykin family's 14-year-old son rode his scooter on pathways around the Wah Mai Terrace Apartments complex in Southeast Portland, the apartment manager fined his parents $20.

When they left their children's play furniture and other items out on the patio, the apartment manager issued a few warnings and then another $20 fine.

The family's actions violated apartment policies, according to a complaint filed last September in Multnomah County Circuit Court. But under an agreement with the state announced Friday, the apartment complex and its property management firm will pay nearly $65,000 to tenants, the state and a legal aid organization. They will have to ditch policies that tenants criticized as discriminating against families.

And they will have to install a playground structure.

"It's a really good (result) for families in Oregon," said Christina Dirks, who represented the Sazykins, one of several families who made claims against the apartment complex and property management firm Norris & Stevens. "It's helping to assure that families in our community have equal access to enjoy their rental housing."

Under the agreement, Wah Mai Terrace and Norris & Stevens, do not admit any wrongdoing.

Norris & Stevens representatives did not return a call for comment.

Jonathan Radmacher, an attorney for the Wah Mai Terrace owners, said the policies were never meant to be anti-children.

He noted that the apartment complex owners and property managers were quick to address the problems as soon as they were brought up.

The policy that barred tenants from storing items other than bikes and barbecue grills on their patios was to keep the look of the complex presentable and clean, Radmacher said. The policy that prohibited children from riding bikes, tricycles, Big Wheel-type toys, skateboards and rollerskates on the property was out of concern for older residents, he said.

"There are lots of places to play in the neighborhood," he said, noting Ventura Park and Floyd Light Middle School, both about a block or two away from the complex at SE 111th and SE Stark.

He criticized the state, saying that the apartment complex and property managers were not aware of the discrimination concerns until the state intervened and threatened them with tens of thousands of dollars in state legal fees. "I know my client would never want to have any policy that's discriminatory... They would always want that brought to their attention, and they would fix it," he said. About $35,000 of the settlement will go to six current and former tenants. Norris & Stevens and Wah Mai Terrace also must pay attorney fees and costs of $20,000 to the Oregon Department of Justice and $9,816.36 to Legal Aid Services of Oregon.

Representatives for the two entities must participate in training on fair housing practices.

They also cannot try to collect fines and other debts that were levied against tenants under the “potentially unlawful” policies.

Norris & Stevens, which manages 8,300 units throughout the Portland area, will adopt the revised policies at all properties in its portfolio, and not just to the Wah Mai Terrace Complex, the state said.

The change helps families — particularly low-income families – who don’t have the means to just pick up and move elsewhere, said Dirks, a staff attorney with Legal Aid Services of Oregon. The rental market, as well, offers few options.

The Portland market is tied with Minneapolis for having the second-lowest vacancy rate in the nation, according to a survey of the National Association of Realtors.