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Published: Sunday, 7/31/2005

HUD study finds broad bias against the disabled

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Suburban Toledo apartment manager Bessie Gaven was convinced she was only enforcing rules when she began eviction proceedings against a tenant who refused to get rid of a large golden retriever.

But the tenant, who had physical and mental disabilities, insisted that she was entitled to keep the helper dog under state and federal laws barring housing discrimination against people with disabilities.

The Ohio Civil Rights Commission agreed, and accused Ms. Gaven s employer, Country Club Apartments in Oregon, of violating the law.

A new study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, seeks to draw attention to what researchers said is a major problem: discrimination by landlords against people with disabilities.

Among findings of the study, which was released last week:

  • Deaf people inquiring about vacancies through a special system that uses messages entered into teletype machines and conveyed through operators were refused service in one out of every four calls.

  • Nearly one out of five landlords refused to provide a dedicated handicapped parking space near the entrance, as required, for wheelchair-users and other people with problems getting around.

  • One in six landlords rejected requests by prospective tenants to make reasonable modifications, at the tenants expense, to make apartments more accessible.

    There are landlords who are indifferent, landlords who are ignorant of the law, and landlords who willfully violate the law believing no one is going to do anything about it, said Bryan Greene, director of policy in HUD s office of fair housing in Washington.

    There is some stubbornness, he added. There are cases that go all the way to litigation because the landlord insists no one can have an assigned parking space, despite the fact that they are in the middle of an investigation involving government authorities.

    As part of the study, which was conducted by the nonprofit Urban Institute, deaf people and those who use wheelchairs inquired about vacancies. Landlord responses were then compared with how they treated people with similar income levels and status who were not disabled.

    Landlords have to understand they must make accommodations for disabled persons, said Darlene Sweeney-Newbern, director of the state Civil Rights Commission s Toledo region.

    She agreed that violations are significant locally and nationally.

    In the Toledo area, the nonprofit Fair Housing Center said that about 10 percent of the 271 discrimination complaints it fielded last year were from people with disabilities.

    For the most part, problems involve failure to make reasonable accommodations as opposed to denial of rental, said Keith Foster, the center s director of enforcement and compliance.

    Recurring problems involve assigned parking spaces and refusal to allow the tenant to modify the unit.

    Landlords rarely can be forced to pay for changes.

    Modifications such as installation of wheelchair ramps are at the expense of tenants, who can also, in some instances, be required to put up a bond to ensure restoration of the unit when they move.

    Ms. Gaven, the manager at Country Club apartments, said she has no quarrel with the law.

    But she said there is a potential for abuse, especially by tenants who claim a disability merely to get around no-pet rules.

    The tenant who brought the claim against Country Club apartments said she needed a helper dog to answer the phone, but Ms. Gaven and the project s owners disputed that.

    The Civil Rights Commission s written findings in the case state that the tenant, who has since moved, has physical and mental disabilities but provided no specifics.

    As part of a settlement with the commission last year, however, Country Club agreed to take out full-page advertisements in The Blade and two other newspapers annually for three years during the observance of Fair Housing Day.

    In the ads, the project agreed to declare adherence to anti-discrimination laws.

    The former tenant has an unlisted telephone number and couldn t be reached for comment.

    Mr. Foster, of the Fair Housing Center, agreed that refusal to allow assist or helper dogs is a frequent source of complaints.

    A lot of people think that the only animal that counts is a seeing-eye dog, he said.

    Other complaints are less common.

    One current case involves an apartment complex that refuses to waive its rule against inflatable swimming pool floats for a disabled resident who requires such a device.

    Over the years, the Fair Housing Center has received numerous complaints about parking spaces.

    Some landlords tell disabled tenants to use existing handicapped spots without realizing, or while refusing to acknowledge, that the law requires them to create an additional space near the entrance specifically for the tenant.

    Pattie Barfield, office manager for Toledo s Deaf Resource Center, said she suspects that problems are more widespread than the statistics suggest.

    Often times, that organization s clients are unwilling to file a formal complaint.

    As suggested by the HUD study, problems frequently surface with the relay service that uses teletype machines and operators.

    Recipients of such calls who are unfamiliar with the service sometimes hang up because they believe they are being contacted by a telemarketer, Ms. Barfield said.

    She added that Deaf Resource clients inquiring about apartment vacancies often ask the agency to place the call for them.

    Despite problems, many landlords are quick to recognize the need to install visual cues for doorbells and smoke alarms when a deaf tenant moves in, she said.

    Penalties for violating fair housing rules are up to $10,000 for a first offense, up to $25,000 for a second offense, and up to $50,000 for a third offense, said Ms. Sweeney-Newbern, of the Civil Rights Commission.

    Landlords also can be ordered to pay moving costs and other tenant expenses.

    Contact Gary Pakulski at: gpakulski@theblade.com or 419-724-6082.



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