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Don't ask

To avoid even the suggestion of discrimination, housing experts advise sellers and landlords to treat people the same and not to raise certain questions.

By TERESA BURNEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 30, 1999


A condominium association refuses to give an ailing, elderly woman a parking space close to her unit.

The owner of a $500,000 house in an upscale neighborhood refuses to sell to a couple because the wife is Hispanic.

A neighborhood association sues the new owners of a house because they have children, even though the neighborhood isn't formally designated as a development where only seniors can live.

These cases of housing discrimination all happened in Florida, and such violations of the Fair Housing Act continue to be common, says Evelyn Golden, assistant general counsel for the Florida Human Relations Commission. The commission, which investigates complaints of housing discrimination, closes about 250 such cases a year.

"Yes, it happens in our fine state," Golden said. "There are always cases where people don't want other people for some reason."

Discrimination is common in the Tampa Bay area as well. Almost every real estate agent has a tale to tell.

Agent Marta Lopez of Florida Network Realty in Tampa remembers calling on a woman who was trying to sell her house without an agent. The woman said she didn't want to put a sign up, for fear that a black person would come to buy the house. A neighbor had threatened to harm the woman if she sold her home to an African-American, Lopez said.

Lopez suggested the woman file a complaint against the neighbor, then backed off from the listing.

"I walked away because I knew it was going to be a bad situation," Lopez said.

Sometimes landlords and home sellers don't know what they are doing is illegal. Other times, they do and just don't care, Golden said. Still, many landlords and home sellers are worried enough about getting sued over discrimination accusations.

They hire lawyers to advise them and go to classes to learn how to avoid getting in trouble. At one such class recently, at the National Association of Home Builders' convention in Dallas, two lawyers gave a primer on what housing discrimination is and how to avoid it. Here are the basics, according to lawyers Floyd Manilow of Chicago and Chip Dicks of Fairfax, Va.:

It is against federal law to refuse to lease or sell a home or apartment to someone because of their race, color, national origin, sex, handicap, family status or religion.

It is also illegal to treat anyone from any of those protected classes differently from anybody else, either by charging them differently or requiring them to meet different criteria.

* * *

And a seller or landlord can't get around the law by telling someone who is part of one of the protected classes that there are no units available or that the house has been sold when it hasn't. That is illegal too.

The best way to avoid discriminating against anyone who is looking for a place to live is to treat everyone the same, the lawyers advised the group.

If you check the criminal record of one person, you need to check for criminal records on every applicant for an apartment.

If you brag about the neighborhood schools to one person, you should brag about them to everybody.

And there are certain questions that shouldn't be asked to avoid the appearance of discrimination:

* Don't ask if the person has children or whether they are single or married, although you can ask how many people will be living in an apartment. Lessors and sellers aren't supposed to discriminate against families with children, unless the house or unit is in a designated senior community.

* Stay away from questions about people's nationality, even in seemingly casual conversation.

* It's not legitimate to ask, "Have either one of you been arrested or used drugs?" Landlords can ask on an application whether someone has been convicted of a felony. But a person must present a "clear and present threat to the public safety" before they can justifiably be denied a lease, said Dicks, founder of FutureLaw, a Virginia law firm. Dicks specializes in housing law.

* Lessors aren't supposed to ask someone whether they have a disability, but they can ask whether they need any special accommodations: a special smoke detector for someone who is hearing-impaired or a close parking space for someone who uses a wheelchair.

If the lessee asks for a special accommodation, the landlord must allow it if it is "reasonable" under the Fair Housing Act. The tenant is required to bear the expense of any major alterations to the premises, though.

One particularly sticky area of the law is the requirement that people with mental, as well as physical disabilities, be accommodated. Some landlords are discovering that can make for some surprising requests.

"It's a very broad umbrella," said Dicks, recalling the story of an apartment manager who called him for advice. A potential tenant refused to take an apartment until she had checked it for demons. The manager called her a "goofball."

That is a judgment that came with a price: Because the apartment manager considered the woman to have a mental problem, he was obligated to consider her mentally handicapped. Dicks told the manager he could not exclude her from leasing the apartment.

In an apartment complex outside Atlanta, a woman who was mentally distressed asked that she be allowed to keep her small dog because it calmed her. The complex didn't allow pets and refused. The woman sued the complex and won, Dicks said. The court said the dog was a "service animal" and should be allowed. No pet deposits are required for service animals.

But every landlord is not required to allow every pet, Dicks said.

One inhabitant of a Virginia apartment complex asked permission to keep his boa constrictor, telling managers he didn't feel safe at night unless he was wrapped in the snake. Dicks told the apartment managers they could safely turn down the request because it wasn't "reasonable."

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