CITY HALL — Attorneys with Santa Monica’s Consumer Protection Unit said Monday they have seen a surge in housing discrimination complaints by tenants with disabilities.

One tenant with a “serious” respiratory disability asked to be moved to another unit to get away from second-hand cigarette smoke while two others asked their landlords if they could have service animals even though the apartment complex had a no-pets policy, said Deputy City Attorney Gary Rhoades.

Those requests were initially denied until the Consumer Protection Unit stepped in and negotiated settlements.

In the last five months, city attorneys have received seven housing discrimination complaints by tenants seeking accommodations for their disabilities. By comparison, the Consumer Protection Unit received only three complaints from July 1, 2011 to July 1, 2012.

The rise in complaints could be because more tenants are aware of their rights thanks to seminars conducted by City Hall, Rhoades said, seminars like the one planned for April 29 in recognition of national Fair Housing Month. The seminar is from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Main Library. For more information, visit www.smconsumer.org to register or call (310) 458-8336.

The Consumer Protection Unit 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 inquires usually exceed all other types, Rhoades said.

Despite a range of issues, the unit manages to help those involved solve their disputes without litigation, disputes such as the one that arose when Santa Monican Zelda Alvarado was diagnosed with a respiratory disability. Alvarado lived in an apartment situated between two smokers. She said she could smell smoke every day and night and her health deteriorated because of the exposure.

With a note from her doctor,  she went to her landlord, G&K Property Management, to ask to be moved to a smoke-free unit in her building that had recently become vacant. Her request was denied, said Diane Varady, an investigator with the City Attorney’s Office who worked 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 this month 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.”

Under state and federal fair housing laws, landlords must make “reasonable” accommodations in their rules and policies so that tenants with disabilities have equal enjoyment of their units.

There are two basic legal requirements for a reasonable accommodation, Rhoades said.

First, the accommodation must be needed in response to the nature of the tenant’s disability. The doctor’s statement had confirmed that Alvarado 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, Rhoades said.

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 Alvarado notified Varady that she was being moved to the vacant apartment.

“Zelda got her reasonable accommodation without having to resort to litigation,” said Rhoades, “That’s our goal every time.”

Other cases resolved in recent months include:

• 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 Consumer Protection Unit, the home owners’ association 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 Consumer Protection Unit wrote a letter and e-mails and persuaded the owner to allow the pet and to return the deposit.

• 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 Consumer Protection Unit stepped in and along with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles 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.

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 Consumer Protection Unit sent an e-mail 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 City Hall, the office persuaded the owner that this policy had a discriminatory impact on children and that it had been enacted to keep children out of the courtyard. The policy was changed to reflect that most activities in the courtyard could resume.

 

kevinh@smdp.com

 

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