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Department of Justice sues CATCH Neighborhood Housing over air conditioner complaint

The Department of Justice is suing a county housing nonprofit on behalf of one of its Concord tenants, claiming the organization violated fair housing regulations by denying the woman additional air conditioning and then citing her for installing her own.

The suit, filed Friday, alleges that CATCH Neighborhood Housing “refused to make a reasonable accommodation” for Cathy Wyrenbeck, a physically disabled tenant in its Mennino Place apartment complex who had requested a second cooling unit to alleviate symptoms related to her illness. It states that Wyrenbeck suffers from chronic urticarial, or hives, which impairs her ability to stand or sit for long periods of time and is exacerbated by heat.

The suit does not indicate how much Wyrenbeck is seeking in monetary damages.

Wyrenbeck would not comment yesterday on the suit, and a spokeswoman with the DOJ did not immediately return a request for comment.

CATCH President Rosemary Heard disputed the allegations, contending that her organization had in fact tried to accommodate Wyrenbeck by helping her secure cash for a second unit.

According to the suit, Wyrenbeck moved into the apartment complex in late 2011. In June 2012 she informed MB Management, an agent of CATCH that oversees the 45-unit complex, that the portable floor-based cooling unit in her apartment was insufficient given her condition, and she asked to rent a second floor unit. The company eventually told her they had no such units, and suggested she purchase one on her own.

In July, Wyrenbeck asked if she could install a window unit that she already owned, the suit states. An employee at MB Management responded that such units are not permitted at the complex, and that if she wanted to install one she had to file a “reasonable accommodation” request. Within a week of receiving that information, and before filing the request, Wyrenbeck installed the window unit in her living room.

By mid-July Wyrenbeck had obtained and completed the required request forms. A few weeks later, according to the suit, she contacted a manager to discuss the status of her request. He told her she needed to remove the window unit because it violated her lease. A week later, with the unit still in the window, he notified her of the violation in writing.

Wyrenbeck then filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides CATCH with funds to operate Mennino Place. In September, Wyrenbeck removed the window unit.

Heard described the situation as “unfortunate,” and indicated that her organization is “committed to serving the needs of all tenants living in our housing.” She said window units are not allowed at Mennino Place for aesthetic reasons.

“When we built Mennino we provided a rolling unit so not to have 45 box units hanging out of windows,” she said. “It’s a beautiful building, and we wanted to preserve the facade.”

Heard noted that CATCH had offered to connect Wyrenbeck with another nonprofit that could help her finance a second rolling unit. She said Wyrenbeck was never served an eviction notice.

“We have an obligation to adhere to all of the fair housing laws,” Heard said, suggesting that treating “one resident differently than another” would be unfair. So far no other tenants have asked to install window units, she said.

In May, CATCH and MB Management provided Wyrenbeck with a second floor unit.

Wyrenbeck directed questions yesterday to an attorney she said was also representing her in a suit against CATCH. It’s not clear if that is separate from the DOJ suit. Heard said her organization has dealt with “a number of lawsuits from Cathy” over the years, including one that involved a dispute over heating.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

Legacy Comments2

It's not necessarily tort reform as that would prevent people that have a legitimate problem from justice. What we need is to revamp our disability rules. The maladies that we consider disabling these days is laughable. Sleep apnea or chronic hives do not rise to that level as far as I am concerned. In the 60's there were like 116 people paying into social security for every 1 person on "disablity". Today it is more like 16 to 1! It's called a job people and often they are not a lot of fun but we have to do them, or we used to.

A Perfect example of the "Rules Do Not Apply To Me". I should be the only one allowed in the complex to have a window air conditioner. Obviously this woman believes she is above the rules. I suggest she move elsewhere if she dislikes the rules. I would imagine she knows how to play the game. Sue and hope they will give you the standard 20 to 40 grand go away payoff. it is cases like this that show why we need tort reform now.

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