When Mike Thornton stumbled upon an affordable apartment near The Strand in Manhattan Beach earlier this month, the Palos Verdes man thought his struggle to find housing in the South Bay had finally come to an end.
Instead, the 23-year-old associate producer has become the central character in a tenants' rights battle that some South Bay property managers say exposes a widespread but seldom discussed policy of discrimination against single men and women.
Thornton, who lives with his parents and works for a Studio City animation firm, had hoped to move into the one-bedroom apartment next month with John Portman, a former college roommate who now lives in San Diego.
But the two men, who roomed together for three years at UCLA, say they were denied the $615-a-month apartment because they are not homosexual lovers.
Not to the 'Uninvolved'
Thornton said that property manager Susan Nichols, who runs The Management Consultants (TMC) of Manhattan Beach, told him that TMC does not rent one-bedroom units to two "uninvolved" men or women. "She said they do not discriminate against gay men or unmarried couples, but that they won't allow two men or two women who were not a couple to live there," Thornton said.
"I know that things are changing, but that is completely ridiculous," Thornton said last week. "I don't think you should have to lie and say you are gay to get an apartment. The first time I asked about the apartment, it was available. Ten minutes later it wasn't, because we weren't a gay couple."
Last week, Thornton took his complaint to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which is expected to review his claim of discrimination early this week. If staff consultants determine that Thornton has a legitimate complaint, the department will launch an investigation shortly thereafter, a department spokesman said.
Nichols, meanwhile, acknowledged that her firm does not rent one-bedroom apartments to two heterosexual men or women, but defended the policy as one of "common sense." She said that she was undeterred by Thornton's claim of discrimination, adding that she is certain her policy is perfectly legal.
No One in Living Room
"The bottom line is to make sure that no one resides in the living room," she said. "We have never found two roommates to share a bedroom. Laverne and Shirley simply does not happen in real life."
Nichols said that she rents one-bedroom apartments to unmarried heterosexual couples as well as homosexual couples because the tenants presumably will sleep together in the bedroom. She said the policy is not discriminatory, but rather a guarantee that living areas will not be used for sleeping.
"We don't discriminate on the basis of children, race, religion or sex," she said. "But we don't want someone on the couch. We don't want the property to become a commune. Bedrooms are made for sleeping and the living rooms are for other activities."
Nichols denied that she refused to rent the one-bedroom apartment to Thornton and Portman because they are heterosexual. She said the issue was irrelevant because the apartment was too small for two people--regardless of their personal relationship.
Nichols said the apartment, which since has been rented to one person, has insufficient closet space for two people and just one parking spot. She acknowledged, however, that she would not have rented the unit to Thornton and Portman even if the closet and parking space had been adequate.
Representatives from area tenants organizations, the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing and several South Bay property management firms described Thornton's complaint as highly unusual. Several of them, however, said the TMC policy did not surprise them.
"No one to my knowledge has ever complained about this," said Frank Fernandez, executive director of the California Assn. of Tenants, a nonprofit group that handles 10,000 tenant complaints a year. "Single people at one time didn't really care about their living situation. They would just move out, and say 'no big deal' if a landlord gave them a hard time."
Fernandez said that housing shortages and skyrocketing rents, however, have forced single people to pool their resources, share apartments, and become more aware of their rights. He said Thornton's complaint about the no-roommates policy, while unique in its circumstances, is just one of a wave of complaints being lodged by increasingly aware single tenants.
"Roommates is a very common living arrangement in the city and county of Los Angeles," he said. "At least 10% of our calls have something to do with a rooming situation."
Vicki Callahan, owner of Oui Property Management of Hermosa Beach, said that her firm does not have a policy similar to the TMC policy. But she said complaints like Thornton's, while not reported to tenants groups and state officials, are common in the area.
"It is very widespread in the South Bay," said Callahan, who was born and raised in the area and has operated her business here for seven years. "I have tenants who ran into a lot of people who would not rent to them because they wanted to be roommates."
Callahan declined to name specific landlords or property management firms, however, saying such a disclosure "would be slitting my own throat." She said the property management profession in the South Bay is a "small closely knit little world" that relies on good relations among its members.
Karen McDonnell, property manager for the rental division of Shorewood Realtors in Redondo Beach, said her firm does not have a set policy on roommates, but that she, like Nichols, strives to ensure that tenants do not sleep in living rooms.
Wear and Tear
"I can understand how the tenants would feel, but it is more wear and tear on the apartment," she said. "If you have someone living in the living room, that is not good. My responsibility is to the owner."
While state and local housing officials agree the Thornton complaint is unusual, there is little agreement as to its validity. Diane Tan, a staff attorney with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, said the policy "doesn't sound discriminatory," while Gilbert Gutierrez, a complaint supervisor with the same department said, "Yes, that is a violation. It is arbitrary discrimination."
Officials from the Metro-Harbor Fair Housing Council, a federally funded organization that acts as a mediator in tenant-landlord disputes, said the Thornton complaint opened a new form of potential sex discrimination. Fernandez, of the California Assn. of Tenants, agreed, but expressed little optimism about Thornton's chances of effecting any change.
"I don't know if there is sufficient case law to back him up," Fernandez said. "Besides I doubt very much if he is going to get much action from the department. We haven't been able to get the department to do anything even on the child discrimination questions."
Thornton nonetheless said he will follow through on his complaint, if for no other reason than to expose the "ridiculous" policy.
"I have no problem with income, or credit or anything, and I was not allowed to rent the apartment," said Thornton, who is waging his battle even though he and and Portman have found another one-bedroom apartment. "It may sound rather selfless, but I am not a selfless person. I am selfish. I don't want people taking advantage of me."
Nichols, meanwhile, applauded Thornton's determination. "They are more than welcome to follow it through," she said. "We don't work for the tenants, we work for the owners. And we do a very good job."