Two months ago, as part of its ongoing efforts against housing discrimination, the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office (CAO) celebrated April as National Fair Housing Month. Approximately 100 tenants, landlords, and community members gathered to hear from local and regional fair housing experts at the Santa Monica Library at a forum we co-hosted with the Santa Monica Rent Control Board, Santa Monica Renter’s Rights, the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, and the Action Apartment Association.
More than 350 students participated in our “Fair Housing Opens Doors” poster contest, including Eden Craig, a fifth grader at Grant Elementary School, whose vibrant work accompanies this column. Two of the students’ posters became part of a month-long public service advertising campaign in the Daily Press and on social media.
Finally in April — and perhaps in response to the ads and forum — tenants were bringing forth new complaints for review by our investigators.
Two months later, the work goes on full speed here and everywhere else. Our office continues to investigate and litigate housing discrimination cases while new and old fair housing issues also rear up their ugly heads across the country.
Many of these cases involve new strains of discrimination. For over fifty years, the fair housing laws have prohibited discrimination by landlords, realtors, banks, cities, and insurance companies. Classic cases of discrimination include refusing to rent to people who are a different race or religion. Or denying a tenant with a disability her request for a reasonable accommodation (nearby parking space) or modification (wheelchair ramp). Or turning away a family with two children from a vacant two-bedroom apartment.
But for a good look at discrimination’s relentless variety, here are the allegations in four fair housing cases that our office is litigating in court this month:
• A Santa Monica landlord rented exclusively to young female students, then regularly used his key to walk into their home without notice.
• A property manager engaged in a campaign of unfair demands and rules to make life exceedingly difficult for a single mother and her severely disabled daughter.
• A Santa Monica landlord threatened to report her tenants to the police based on their immigration status if they did not pay a higher rent or leave.
• A local landlord has refused to allow her disabled, senior, and severely rent-burdened tenant to use a Section 8 voucher to help pay the rent.
The CAO obtained preliminary injunctions in the first two cases, stopping the alleged conduct pending trial, while the landlords in the second two have voluntarily resolved the alleged conduct pending trial. We are also litigating our third affordable housing enforcement case , where owners are allegedly violating obligations under affordable housing deed restrictions, and will soon be filing our fourth. Affordable housing for people of all walks of life is a crucial piece of a community’s fair housing puzzle.
The variety of housing discrimination continues at the state and national levels:
• The U.S. Department of Justice has just charged Facebook with creating advertising tools that blatantly allow housing providers to either target or exclude consumers for or from housing opportunities based on their race, religion, gender and other protected classes.
• Since 2016, hate crimes against all protected classes have been surging in Los Angeles, in California, and across the country. According to a January 2019 Los Angeles Times article, hate crimes shot up again in 2018, up 13 percent in Los Angeles and 17 percent in California.
• In the past twelve months, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) has reported several cases against housing providers who were allegedly denying tenants with disabilities reasonable accommodations that would allow them equal and fair housing.
• A large real investment firm paid $2.5 million this year to settle a federal fair housing lawsuit alleging that it pressured Latino and mentally disabled tenants to leave its rent-controlled buildings in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles.
• Last week, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority released the results of the 2019 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. The number of homeless people in the county increased from 52,765 to 58,936, a 12% rise. Distressingly high numbers. But the major fair housing red flags continue to be statistics for the African-American homeless population, which constitutes 33% of the homeless population even though African-Americans constitute only 8.3% of the overall county population.
So let’s face it, every month must be Fair Housing Month. Housing discrimination has not been eradicated, not even close. The federal, state, and local fair housing laws must keep up with the new tactics, but it’s also up to us—no matter what month it is—to know our rights and responsibilities under the law so that we can recognize and stop discrimination in any form and in its tracks.
Gary Rhoades is a Deputy City Attorney in the Consumer Protection Division of the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office. Potential violations of the fair housing laws may be reported to the Consumer Protection Division by calling 310-458-8336 or by going to smconsumer.org.