Behind the Headlines: Lessons Learned from four Fair Housing Settlements - First of Four Articles

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Behind the Headlines: Lessons Learned from the Latest Fair Housing News

This is the first of four articles that MHCO spotlights settlements reached in fair housing cases. The amounts reportedly paid are sometimes staggering—which is news in and of itself—and show just how much it can cost to resolve fair housing complaints. But the real news is in the backstory, the events that led to a complaint against the community. It’s there that you can learn what, if any- thing, the community could have done to avoid the problem in the first place, or once the problem arose, to prevent it from escalating into a formal fair housing complaint.   Over the next four weeks MHCO will run four stories on Fair Housing settlements along with the backstory and lessons learned.  

In this lesson, we’re highlighting the news about four fair housing settlements. We’ll start with the headlines and then give you the backstory—the allegations in the complaint—so you can get a feel for how and why the situation led to a formal fair housing complaint. Then we’ll review the lessons learned from each scenario to help you avoid similar fair housing trouble at your community. 

Editor’s Note: Since we’re looking at settlements, we get to hear only one side of the story—the allegations of the resident, the government, or the fair housing advocacy group filing the complaint. It may not be what really happened: All the owners, managers, and communities denied the allegations, so we don’t get to hear their side of the story, which may very well have gotten the whole thing thrown out of court. As a practical matter, however, it’s often better to settle to put an end to the matter, rather than face the prospect of lengthy and expensive legal proceedings. Just remember: The fact that the case was settled doesn’t mean that anyone did anything wrong. 

First Headline:  Landlords Pay $19,500 for Allegedly Denying Housing to Mother of Twins 

HUD announced that a group of landlords have agreed to pay $19,500 to resolve complaints alleging discrimination against families with children. According to the complaint, the owners and their on-site property manager allegedly refused to rent a two-bedroom apartment to a single mother and her twin boys. 

The Backstory:This case started when a mother said she contacted a property manager about renting a two-bedroom unit for herself and her twin 4-year-old boys. She alleged that, after learning she had two sons, the property manager told her that there would be some clean-up involved and that he would get back to her—but he never did. Two weeks later, she said her mother called the property manager on her behalf. When the grandmother reminded him about the two children, the manager allegedly said that he would need to consult with his wife, who wouldn’t be back in town for two weeks. 

Suspecting discrimination, the mother asked her cousin to call about the unit. Allegedly, the property manager asked who would be living there and when the cousin said the apartment would be for her and her husband, he offered to show her the unit the next day.

The mother filed a HUD complaint, alleging that the community denied her the opportunity to rent a two-bedroom unit because she has children. Though the owners and manager denied the allegations, the parties reached a settlement. Without admitting liability, the community agreed to pay the mother $19,500 and to modify its website and advertising policy to clearly state that families with children are welcome. 

“When a property owner refuses to show an available unit to a family because they have children, they’re not only denying them a housing opportunity, they’re violating the law,” Gustavo Velasquez, HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Hous- ing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement. “No one should have to hide who they are or who their family is while looking for a place to live. This agreement reaffirms HUD’s commitment to ensuring that housing providers treat all applicants the same, regardless of gender, race or family status.” 

Lessons Learned: 

1. It’s NOT Okay to Turn Away Families with Children:  Though it’s been unlawful for 25 years, communities continue to run afoul of fair housing provisions banning discrimination based on familial status. These rules bar communities from denying housing to applicants because they have one or more children under 18 living with them. Unless the community qualifies as senior housing, it’s unlawful to screen out or deny housing to families with children. 

2. Dot Your I’s and Cross Your T’s to Qualify as Senior Housing: Don’t get lulled into a false sense of security because fair housing law recognizes an exception to the rules banning familial status for senior housing communities. It’s a limited exception, which applies only to “housing for older persons,” and there are lots of hurdles to jump before a community may qualify for the exception. Unless your community meets those specific technical requirements, you can’t simply decide that you’d prefer to rent to adults instead of people who have one or more children in their household. 

3. Testers Are on the Lookout for Discrimination Against Families: 

It’s common for prospects to ask friends or family members to check out suspicions that they’re getting the runaround because they have kids,
but increasingly it’s testers who are contacting communities to check for discrimination based on familial status. To avoid even the hint of discriminatory intent, treat every contact as if he was a fair housing tester—he very well may turn out to be one. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This settlement is among a string of settlements and court filings in housing discrimination complaints based on familial status. A Wisconsin community agreed to a $100,000 settlement to resolve allegations that it unlawfully excluded families with children from significant portions of its 230-lot mobile home park. 

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