MONTPELIER - "Family" may not seem like an obvious target for discrimination. But in two recent cases, landlords violated housing laws by indicating a preference for childless renters. The violations appear to correlate with a broader trend of rental malpractice in Vermont.
In June 2006, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and the The Vermont Legal Aid society filed the first case with the Vermont Human Rights Commission in October, and the second in December. Both were settled in March through mediation.
In the first case, a tenant had indicated to the landlord a desire to break a lease agreement. The landlord advised the tenant to screen out prospective renters who had children, and provided the tenant with a newspaper ad he or she had used in the past. In the second case, a housing-discrimination "tester" who met with the landlord was told that the rental unit wouldn't be safe for children.
In the settlements, the landlords - whose names have been kept confidential by the state - agreed to pay $14,000 and $10,800, respectively. They will also attend three-day fair housing training programs and be subjected to a three-year period of rental monitoring. The tenant found guilty of collaborating in the first case agreed to pay $500 and perform 20 hours of community service.
Since 1968, it has been illegal for newspapers to publish discriminatory advertisements. Elizabeth Wechsler, advertising manager at the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, did not return a phone call for this story. When asked about the illegal ads, Rutland Herald advertising director Glenda Hawley declined to comment.
A federal law passed under the Civil Rights Act of 1968 [Fair Housing Act] made it illegal to discriminate against potential tenants on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. Vermont added its own "protected categories" in 1987: marital status, age, sexual orientation and receipt of public assistance [Vermont Fair Housing and Public Accomodations Act]. In 1988, federal housing-discrimination law was expanded to include familial status and disability.
Meris Bergquist, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid in Springfield, represented the plaintiffs in both settlements. In October 2005, her organization - with the support of the Housing Discrimination Project of Holyoke, Massachusetts - received a $500,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to address housing discrimination in Vermont. The two recent cases are the first to be settled since the grant was issued; nine more are pending. "We weren't aware of the extent of the problem until we were able to do testing over the last 12 months," Bergquist says.
In a housing discrimination test, one "tester" from a "protected category" answers a housing ad, posing as a prospective renter. The results are compared with similar inquiries by testers from non-protected categories.
Housing discrimination is "flourishing" around the state, according to Bergquist. "When you think of housing discrimination as a covert activity, we're looking at a small fraction of the problem," she suggests.
Stuart Bennett, director of the Shelburne-based Vermont Apartment Owners Association, offers a different perspective. He asserts that, while "most landlords have no objection" to fair housing laws, they tend to "bump up" against the "nuances" of those laws unintentionally. "Fourteen thousand is a lot of money for putting an ad out there that probably wasn't intended to be discriminatory," Bennett says.
In 2000, the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) Fair Housing Project conducted a study of family-status housing discrimination. On the basis of 30 "test" housing inquiries, CVOEO determined that discrimination had occurred in 30 percent of cases. The study also included tests for discrimination on the basis of race and wheelchair accessibility.
Rob Meehan, who directs the CVOEO project, estimates that his organization has received between $700,000 and $900,000 over the last decade to conduct education and outreach about housing discrimination in Vermont. But while he characterizes housing discrimination as "one of the most important civil rights laws" on the books, he admits to having seen "people with really good cases walk away" from court proceedings.
Meehan points out that the confidential nature of housing discrimination settlements creates a cyclical problem. "We can't educate people about what happened in the case if people aren't learning about it," he notes. "Housing providers don't know the law, victims don't know what their rights are - and here we go, around and around."
Bennett of VAOA questions the relevance of the issue itself. "Historically, discrimination is a pejorative term," he claims. "But you and I discriminate about what we have for breakfast."