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Family Files Apartment Bias Suit : Claims Bedroom Occupancy Limit Unfair to Children

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Times Staff Writer

A family of four sued a Fullerton apartment complex Thursday, claiming its policy of limiting occupancy to one person per bedroom has the effect of illegally discriminating against children.

The lawsuit is among the first in California to claim that regardless of whether such a policy is applied to all prospective tenants, it has an adverse effect on families and therefore illegally discriminates on the basis of age.

The suit was filed in Orange County Superior Court by Robert Anderson, the Orange County Fair Housing Council and the Fair Housing for Children Coalition Inc. against Fullerton Island Village, an apartment complex.

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Discrimination Issue

“There is still discrimination against families with children, and it is still pervasive, some of it blatant, some of it not,” said Walter Cochran-Bond, Anderson’s attorney.

Per-bedroom occupancy limits “absolutely do not discriminate,” said Robert G. Smith, executive vice president of the Sacramento-based California Apartment Assn., a trade group that represents 80,000 apartment owners and managers in California.

“The owner has a perfect right to establish the number of persons he will rent to in a given space, so long as he applies it uniformly,” Smith said. “That doesn’t mean he can take only adults, or only red-headed Irishmen.”

“What they really want to do, the bottom line, is to take control of the property from the owner,” Smith said.

Age discrimination in rental housing has been illegal in California since a landmark 1982 ruling by the California Supreme Court, which held that state civil rights laws prohibit it.

Cochran-Bond said the suit is designed to persuade California courts to apply in age-discrimination cases the standard now familiar in many federal racial discrimination cases--that regardless of the intent of a policy or the uniformity of its application, it should be judged discriminatory if the effects hurt a particular group.

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The policy has “a very severe exclusionary impact on families with children seeking housing in what is a very tight market in Southern California,” Cochran-Bond said.

Family Press Conference

The entire Anderson family was present at a Santa Ana press conference Thursday--Robert; his wife, Carol; Paul, 2, and Samuel, 4.

“All I know is that my wife had lived in this complex for six years before we were married. She lived there with three other young ladies in a two-bedroom apartment,” said Anderson, a lawyer.

“When I tried to rent an apartment in 1984, they said they wouldn’t rent us a three-bedroom apartment because of the (one-person-per-bedroom) policy,” Anderson said.

Efforts to reach a spokesman for Fullerton Island Village Apartments, 143 N. Acacia Ave., were unsuccessful.

Person-per-bedroom limitations are a “common business practice,” according to Smith, who said his group represents about 50% of the 4,200,000 residential rental units in the state.

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“From a logical point of view, the more people you have in a unit, the more wear and tear you have on a structure,” Smith said. “Plus the fact that when you plan a complex, you have to estimate the number of parking spaces you need, laundry facilities and other things.”

Owners’ Obligations

Smith said apartment owners and operators have an obligation to control noise and activity on their property by such policies.

“A grocery store can control the number of people they have in the store at the same time. Why should it not be the same situation for an owner of rental housing to impose reasonable standards so long as he does not discriminate against any group?” Smith said.

Maya K. Dunne, of the Orange County Fair Housing Council, said her group received more than 600 complaints from the public about age discrimination for the year that ended June 30. Half of these complaints involved landlord’s policies limiting the number of tenants, Dunne said.

“Child discrimination continues to be practiced throughout Orange County and continues to be a pervasive problem,” Dunne said.

Families with children end up paying more rent for more rooms because they have no other choice, said Dora Ashford of the Fair Housing for Children Coalition.

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“Families tend to pay the price of their own exclusion,” Ashford said. “They are desperate for housing and willing to pay more.”

Ashford said some landlords use other subtle methods to discriminate against families with children, such as policies prohibiting children from common pool areas except during school hours or requiring that children not leave apartments unaccompanied by adults.

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