It should have been a straightforward case of housing discrimination, the type of case that gets resolved in just a few months. Instead, it’s dragged on now for almost eight years.
The basic facts in the case are simple: A single mother inquired about renting an apartment in Baldwinsville for herself and her young son. She arranged an apartment viewing but no one showed up. When she called the landlord, he was blunt: He didn’t allow children to live in the apartment she wanted to rent.
That statement touched off a housing discrimination complaint that would make its way through both a federal agency and a state agency before ending up in state court, where it has been for the past five years.
Although the case seems like an obvious example of discrimination against families with children, the lawsuit has continued for this long because the landlord has been uncooperative and appealing everything, said Conor Kirchner, staff attorney at CNY Fair Housing, a nonprofit organization that works to end housing discrimination in Central New York. The organization has been representing the woman in the lawsuit.
“This is a pretty basic case, he’s just been dragging it on,” Kirchner said as he flipped through the thick case file at CNY Fair Housing’s office in Syracuse. “That’s a straight-forward one that would usually settle very quickly if they were reasonable about it.”
CNY Fair Housing offered the case details, as well as the court filings to validate them, to myhousingmatters.com. We agreed not to name the woman because settlement talks continue, and CNYFH does not want to jeopardize ongoing settlement talks.
Though the case is unusual in its length, it illustrates two obstacles many housing discrimination complaints face: time and red tape. The National Fair Housing Alliance estimates that there are about 4 million housing discrimination violations each year. But in 2013, only 27,352 of these cases were ever reported — or just one in every 7,000.
Complaints that are filed can take a variety of paths to a resolution. In this case, the woman filed a housing discrimination complaint with the Office of Housing and Urban Development. HUD referred the complaint to the New York State Division of Human Rights, which found “probable cause” that the landlord engaged in discriminatory practices, according to the lawsuit.
The Division of Human Rights dismissed the complaint two years later at the woman’s request so she could sue the landlord in state court.
This case is one of about 10 to 15 lawsuits and HUD complaints that CNY Fair Housing currently has ongoing, Kirchner said. Many people who choose to file lawsuits or official complaints are often experiencing ongoing discrimination where they live, he added.
For example, a person in a wheelchair may want to stay where they are but need better accessibility to do so, Kirchner said. In fact, 60 percent of the complaints CNY Fair Housing receives are disability-related. The next two highest categories are family status and then race.
CNY Fair Housing receives about 350 complaints a year. Very few of those complaints — Kirchner estimates about 10 percent — ever make it to his desk. Many complaints can be resolved through mediation between the landlord and the tenant, and some complaints don’t turn out to be housing discrimination issues at all. The cases that do make it to Kirchner have already been investigated by CNY Fair Housing’s enforcement officer and his group of housing testers to make sure there’s enough evidence to pursue.
Once all the evidence has been gathered, CNY Fair Housing has several routes it can take to pursue a case. The organization frequently files with HUD, which charges nothing to file a complaint compared to the hundreds of dollars it can take to file in state or federal court. Complaints filed with HUD are also usually settled faster because the complaint process involves both sides sitting down with a mediator who tries to help the two sides resolve their differences.
What laws aim to ensure fair housing?
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 asserted the first housing discrimination protections: “All citizens of the United States shall have the same right, in every State and Territory, as is enjoyed by white citizens thereof to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.”
The Act went largely unenforced. In 1968, Congress passed Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion and national origin. In 1974, the Act was amended to include sex as a protected class and in 1988 to include disability and family status. Locally, in 2012 the city of Syracuse amended Local Law 17, the Fair Practices Act, to eliminate discrimination in housing based on individuals’ “actual or perceived sex, or their gender identity or expression.”
— CNY Fair Housing Report
How does CNY Fair Housing try to see that laws are followed?
CNY Fair Housing has worked with the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County in recent years to improve its enforcement abilities and to create awareness about fair housing in the area. CNY Fair Housing is developing a new website and moving into a new office that will be more readily accessible to clients, especially those with disabilities.
CNY Fair Housing accepts about 350 complaints each year. About 75 percent of these come from Onondaga County and about 40 percent come from the city of Syracuse. The majority of complaints relate to landlord-tenant issues, rather than fair housing, and involve habitability, evictions and privacy. CNY Fair Housing advises these tenants of their rights. CNY Fair Housing does investigate to determine if the problems are a result of discrimination when the complainants are members of a protected class as defined by law. About 60 percent of the fair housing complaints received by CNY Fair Housing are related to disability. Family status is the No. 2 complaint, and then race.
CNY Fair Housing also tests whether patterns of discrimination exist against a particular protected class or within a particular geographic area. In 2013, CNY Fair Housing, under contract with the city of Syracuse, tested familial status discrimination in the Syracuse University neighborhood. In eight out of the 10 instances that were tested, there was some evidence of disparate treatment of families with children. In three out of the 10 tests, the instances were severe enough to warrant legal action. CNY Fair Housing says it has worked to educate these landlords about the law; it may pursue legal action if things don’t improve.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Family status, gender, marital status: In the city, patterns can favor discrimination
Varying levels in family composition across Onondaga County can lead to discrimination based on familial status, gender or marital status. In the city of Syracuse, 21 percent of households are single-mother-headed and 24 percent are married. Comparatively, in Onondaga County as a whole, 14 percent of families are single-mother-headed and 43 percent are married. The number of households with children is fairly even in the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County, but within city neighborhoods the percentage of families with children varies. On average, 29 percent of households in the city have children, whereas neighborhoods such as the South Side, Near Westside and North Side are in the 43 percent to 58 percent range.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
CNY Fair Housing recently settled a HUD complaint about disability discrimination in less than six months — and got a settlement of $1,250, Kirchner said. The complaint was sparked by a housing ad that said, “No animals, no exceptions.” CNY Fair Housing did testing to see if exemptions were made for service animals — something required by law — but found that no accommodations were made.
Although the settlement was small, it will help to deter this type of behavior in the future, Kirchner said. Settlements in state or federal court are usually much larger. In 2012, CNY Fair Housing won a $12,000 settlement in a federal court case involving Marillac Apartments in Fayetteville after about two years in court.
The apartment complex was discriminating against families with children and, in addition to the monetary settlement, also agreed to market toward families with children, participate in educational training on fair housing and keep copies of prospective tenant applications and tenant files for CNY Fair Housing to review upon request, Kirchner said.
Much of the settlement money the organization wins goes toward future court costs, which can be substantial even if a case doesn’t drag on for years. While filing a complaint with HUD is free, the initial filing cost for state court is around $200, and it’s around $350 for federal court. By the time a case ends, filing fees can be in the thousands of dollars, Kirchner said. CNY Fair Housing will pay the filing fees if a client can’t afford to — and most clients can’t.
If the organization wins a case, it’s often awarded attorney fees, which help cover the costs of court filings and staff salaries. If a client gets a large settlement, CNY Fair Housing will work out a deal with the client to receive a certain percent of the settlement. Clients are never charged if they lose their case, Kirchner said.
Mounting court costs mean that settling court cases or HUD complaints quickly is a big plus. When a case is settled fast, court and staff fees are minimal, which helps keep costs down, Kirchner said.
But even some processes meant to encourage settlement such as mediation, which is required in federal court, cost extra money. Mediation often leads to settlements though, so CNY Fair Housing will file in federal court instead of state court if it thinks the defendant is likely to settle, Kirchner said.
The main law that allows all these lawsuits to proceed is the Fair Housing Act, a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which was passed just one week after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The act prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, religion and national origin and was later amended to include discrimination based on gender, disability and family status.
The act has been somewhat effective in stopping housing discrimination, said John Yinger, a Syracuse University economics and public administration professor who studies housing discrimination. The main reason it works, Yinger said: The law allows private fair housing groups to sue on behalf of their communities rather than depending on complaints.
The special status given to fair housing organizations led these groups to start doing housing audits or tests to see if people were being discriminated against. By the 1990s, as courts became more comfortable with the idea of testing, fair housing groups were getting settlements in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Yinger said.
Testing remains the biggest factor in building a successful housing discrimination case, said Ronald Van Norstrand, an attorney who founded CNY Fair Housing.
“Without it, as is the case too often with all forms of discrimination, it’s a spitting match of ‘he said, she said’,” Van Norstrand said. “It’s so difficult to pursue a case without the testing evidence.”
Van Norstrand attributes most of the progress he has seen in stopping housing discrimination to these testing programs. Still, discrimination has become subtler since he founded CNY Fair Housing in 1991, he said.
“It’s a constant struggle,” Van Norstrand said. “It may have improved some but we have to struggle for that ultimate goal.”
Fair housing advocates have a few choice words to describe a housing discrimination case currently before the Supreme Court:
Huge. Incredibly important.
And tragic — if they feel the decision goes the wrong way.
“It may seem alarming but yeah, I would say devastating,” said Ronald Van Norstrand, an attorney who founded CNY Fair Housing, a nonprofit organization that works to eliminate housing discrimination.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, at the end of January and will likely issue a ruling this summer. At the heart of the case is whether the Fair Housing Act allows people to bring lawsuits based on a concept called “disparate impact.”
Disparate impact refers to practices that don’t intend to be discriminatory but have a bigger effect on one group than another. To understand how disparate impact works, consider which of the following scenarios qualify as examples of discrimination.
- A landlord charges extra money when an apartment has more than three
- A lender requires a record of employment history to qualify for a mortgage
- A landlord tells a black woman over the phone that an apartment is available.
When the woman shows up at the office, the landlord tells her the apartment
is no longer available.
Most people would agree that the last scenario is a clear example of discrimination. But the first two scenarios are also examples of discrimination, though in a more subtle form. Charging extra money for more than three occupants can discriminate against many families. Requiring employment history for a loan or mortgage discriminates against people with disabilities who may not have a steady job but have other sources of income.
The first two scenarios are prime examples of disparate impact and right now, lenders and landlords can be sued for disparate impact. But depending on the Supreme Court’s ruling this summer, that could change.
Not allowing disparate impact cases would really take away “a lot of the teeth” of the Fair Housing Act, said Conor Kirchner, staff attorney at CNY Fair Housing. Disparate impact is often the sole basis for many cases, especially those dealing with unfair lending and mortgage practices, he added.
A Supreme Court ruling against disparate impact would be a major step backwards for housing discrimination laws in the U.S., said John Yinger, a Syracuse University economics and public administration professor who studies housing discrimination.
“The Fair Housing Act’s a pretty amazing piece of legislation,” Yinger said. “Most countries don’t go that far and it’s made a big difference but it’s still always under assault and with the court we have now it would just be tragic if we undermined it or backed away from it.”