The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office reports there has been a surge of housing discrimination complaints by tenants or housing applicants seeking reasonable accommodations for their disabilities.
In the last five months, the Office's Consumer Protection Unit (CPU) received seven such complaints.
By comparison, the office received only three such complaints in Fiscal Year 2011-12.
The City of Santa Monica's CPU will host a new housing seminar April 29 in recognition of national Fair Housing Month that will focus on reasonable accommodation issues.
The CPU accepts complaints for housing discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, gender, disability, family status, sexual orientation, and age. However, disability-based fair housing complaints and inquiries usually exceed all other types.
Despite a range of difficult issues, the CPU manages to help the parties resolve most of these disputes without litigation--disputes such as the one that arose when Santa Monica tenant Zelda Alvarado was diagnosed with a serious respiratory disability.
Zelda lived in an apartment owned and managed by G & K Property Management.
The tenants in the units on two sides of her apartment were smokers.
Zelda could smell the smoke every day and night and began to feel worse.
Her doctor confirmed that this secondhand smoke coming into her unit exacerbated her respiratory disability.
Soon afterwards, Zelda learned of a vacancy in a smoke-free unit in her building.
She wrote to G & K, requesting that they transfer her to the smoke-free unit as an accommodation to her disability. She included a note from her doctor.
When G & K denied her request, Zelda filed a fair housing complaint with the CPU.
Diane Varady, an investigator with the City Attorney's Office, began working on the case.
"First, I talked with several staff members at G & K, which is a fairly large management company," said Varady, who is retiring in April after 34 years at City Hall. "They admitted the denial of Zelda’s request, and they pointed to their wait-list system, saying that Zelda could not cut in line ahead of other tenants and applicants.”
Varady discussed the case with Deputy City Attorney Gary Rhoades, and they considered the facts of Zelda’s case in light of the fair housing laws requiring landlords and managers to make reasonable accommodations in their rules and policies so that tenants with disabilities have equal enjoyment of their units. Did Zelda’s request for a smoke-free apartment qualify as a reasonable accommodation to G & K’s wait-list rules?
There are two basic legal requirements for a reasonable accommodation.
First, the accommodation must be needed in response to the nature of the tenant's disability. The doctor's statement had confirmed that Zelda needed this accommodation. Second, the accommodation request must be reasonable. This means it does not cause an undue burden, either administrative or financial; small or modest burdens or costs for the owner are considered reasonable. As long as the accommodation first requested by the tenant is reasonable, the tenant may reject alternatives, such as the small air filter that G & K proposed.
Varady and Rhoades didn't see any evidence of an undue burden on G & K in allowing Zelda, a current tenant, to move into a vacant apartment.
Making exceptions to wait lists is a classic example of an accommodation needed to help disabled tenants get the apartments and amenities they need, whether it's a smoke-free unit, a unit with a ramp, or a parking spot that's accessible or near the unit.
So Varady requested a meeting at the property with G & K.
"The meeting Gary and I had with staff at the property was very productive,” said Varady. “It came with a tour of the building and a brief meeting with the tenant. We discussed the fair housing law, Zelda’s dire situation, and G & K's wait list rules.”
“At that meeting,” Rhoades added, “the staff began to see how broad and protective reasonable accommodations are supposed to be.”
Two days later, Zelda called Varady to say that her request for the new vacant apartment had been approved and that she was moving that weekend.
"Zelda got her reasonable accommodation without having to resort to litigation," said Rhoades, “That’s our goal every time.”
The CPU has resolved seven fair housing cases in recent months. They include the following accommodations:
· Lockbox installation: A 91-year-old disabled tenant had twice fallen in her rented condominium unit, requiring break-ins by emergency responders. The tenant and Santa Monica Fire Department's request to install a lockbox with a unit key next to her front door was rejected by the homeowner's association. After a letter from and phone conversations with the CPU, the HOA voted again, this time to allow the lockbox.
· Service animal for child: The disabled child of a tenant required a service animal. The management company and owner had already rejected the tenant’s request for a waiver of the building’s no-pet policy and pet deposit requirement. The CPU wrote a letter and emails and persuaded the owner to allow the pet and to return the deposit.
· Emotional support animal: A tenant’s request for an emotional support animal had been rejected based on the fact that the doctor’s note supporting the request was not specific enough. The CPU persuaded the owner and owner’s attorney that such medical requests did not have to name the disability or get into the specifics of how the animal would help.
· The burden of relocation to another unit: Numerous severely disabled persons using Section 8 vouchers were in deed-restricted units that were now suddenly subject to unaffordable rent increases and had been pressured by the owner to move to other buildings with units restricted to lower rents. The CPU and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) persuaded the housing provider to grant over twenty reasonable accommodation requests to delay the changes until the tenants left the units of their own accord.
· Caregivers for tenants: A tenant with severe disabilities needed a caregiver. She submitted a caregiver candidate to her landlord, but the landlord refused to respond and then threatened eviction if the caregiver moved in. The CPU stepped in and along with LAFLA and persuaded the owner and his attorney that if he failed to respond to a caregiver request within a reasonable timeframe, he would waive his right to object to the caregiver.
· Number of emotional support animals: A landlord with a no-pets building called the CPU. An applicant for one of her vacancies had two animals that he claimed were emotional support animals. The landlord was inclined to reject both under the mistaken belief that she only had to grant accommodations to in-place tenants. However, she soon agreed to consider the applicant with the animals and the applicant agreed to get separate medical letters for each animal.
The Consumer Protection Unit also resolved two housing discrimination matters involving family and religion:
· Religious accommodation: A Jewish family was interested in a new vacancy at a local apartment building. However, the open house for viewing apartments and getting applications was limited to certain evenings where the family’s religion prohibited such trips. After the family’s request for a religious accommodation was rejected, the CPU sent an email that persuaded the housing provider to extend new open-house times.
· Children playing in the common area: The owner and management of a large apartment building had banned children (and adults) from playing in the building’s small courtyard. After the families filed a complaint with the CPU, the office persuaded the owner that this policy had a discriminatory impact on children and that it had in fact been implemented to keep children out of the courtyard. The policy was changed to reflect that most activities in the courtyard could resume.
The Consumer Protection Unit’s seminar on fair housing and reasonable accommodations is set for April 29, 2013 from noon to 1:30 pm at the Santa Monica Main Library in its multi-purpose room on the second floor. Participants are invited to bring a brownbag lunch.
Visit the Consumer Protection Unit’s website at www.smconsumer.org to register for the workshop or contact them at 310.458.8336.
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