The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced yesterday that it has charged a Cranston, Rhode Island, landlord and real estate company with two separate acts of housing discrimination. HUD charged Velna Marti Irrevocable Income Trust, its owner and two real estate professionals at RE/MAX Five Star with violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent to families with children.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits a housing provider from discriminating based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disability. The law includes refusing to rent to families with children (unless the housing meets certain requirements for housing for older persons) and making or publishing, in print or on-line, any statement or advertisement that states a limitation against families with children.
According to HUD’s charge, in March of 2008, respondents Cheryl Lee Brill and Wally Wetherbee, a realtor and administrator for Re/Max, advertised for rent on craigslist.com a house owned by respondent Velna Marti Irrevocable Income Trust. The ad stated, “This is an immaculate, spacious three-bedroom house for rent…No cats, dogs, or children please.” Two families with children responded to the advertisement. When they mentioned they had children, Wetherbee allegedly refused to show them the property, saying that the owner would not rent to families with children. The owner eventually rented the house to three men without children.
“The discriminatory language that was used in the ad, along with the agents’ disregard for the law, denied two families with children the opportunity to rent the home of their choice,” said John Trasviña, HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO). “This, simply, is unacceptable. No family should be denied housing because they have children. And landlords and real estate professionals may not use the Internet to avoid the Fair Housing Act. HUD is committed to enforcing the law, and real estate agents must follow the law, not their clients’ discriminatory desires.”
The HUD charges will be heard by a United States Administrative Law Judge unless any party to the charge elects to have that case heard in federal district court. If an administrative law judge finds after a hearing that discrimination has occurred, he may award damages to the complainant for its loss as a result of the discrimination. The judge may also order injunctive relief and other equitable relief to deter further discrimination, as well as payment of attorney fees. In addition, the judge may impose civil penalties in order to vindicate the public interest. In the event of an election, a federal district court judge may also award punitive damages to the complainant.