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Landlord settles with HUD over renting to families with kids

A Concord landlord agreed yesterday to pay $9,000 to settle allegations he refused to rent an apartment to families with children, a violation of federal anti-discrimination law.

Scott Walker screened applicants for a two-bedroom apartment on South Main Street, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The settlement provides $3,000 to a single mother who had wanted to rent the apartment but was denied because she has a 14-year-old son. Another $5,000 will be paid as a civil penalty to the government, and another $1,000 to three other victims of the company’s rental policy, according to a news release yesterday from the department.

The federal housing agency began an investigation in March or April of last year, and brought charges against Walker in September.

Walker’s attorney, Brian Shaughnessy of Manchester, said yesterday the situation was the result of a misunderstanding.

Many people inquired about the apartment in a short time after Walker advertised it online, and after deciding on a tenant, Walker remarked to other interested parties that tenants with children haven’t worked out well in the past, Shaughnessy said.

Owner-occupied residential buildings are not subject to the same regulations as wholly rented properties, so Walker didn’t think he was under the jurisdiction of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing-related transactions based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disability, because his commercial real estate rental company occupies the first floor, his attorney said.

However, the exemption only applies to buildings where the owner lives.

“He misinterpreted the Fair Housing exception for owner-occupied properties, . . . but he wasn’t hiding anything, and when they told him he was subject to it, he said, ‘it was my mistake, my misinterpretation,’ ” Shaughnessy said.

In addition to the financial penalties, Shaughnessy said, Walker agreed to add an affirmative statement to any posted advertisements the next time the apartment is vacant, saying that families are welcome.

Discrimination against tenants because of familial status – the presence or absence of children or pregnancy – is the second leading complaint reported to New Hampshire Legal Assistance’s Housing Justice Project, according to project Director Dan Feltes.

The project receives more than 125 inquiries each year, but tenants may also go directly to HUD or the state Commission on Human Rights, so the real number of cases is probably higher, Feltes said.

Tenants describe discrimination in several forms, with some facing landlords who do not want to rent to families, assuming children will be disruptive, while other property owners will put families on certain levels of the building, in a different area and away from single people, seniors or couples because they are worried that children will cause tensions between the tenants, Feltes said.

“That’s not okay,” he said. “You can’t segregate within your housing unless you have a very specialized program. It’s called unlawful steering.”

The most common type of housing discrimination complaints filed are from physically or mentally disabled tenants. The parts of the fair housing laws that detail reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities are also the least understood, he said.

“Some people with disabilities have the need of a service dog, the commonly known being seeing eye dogs but there are also emotional-support animals that help alleviate the symptoms of mental illness for people. Charging a pet deposit for persons with disabilities who need those pets is, for example, an unlawful charge, because you are penalizing them for having a disability,” Feltes said.

“Another occurs in the eviction process for someone with mental health problems. If the symptoms of their illness caused them to exhibit behavior that disrupts others including the landlords, in some cases they may be able to make reasonable accommodations, a reasonable plan to try to work on it.”

The project monitors housing discrimination in the state through a grant from HUD, meeting with community groups to hear their concerns and hosting training sessions for landlords, tenants, home owners and home sellers.

For more information about landlord and tenant rights, you can contact the Housing Justice Project at 223-9750.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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