Landlords break the law when they limit the number of tenants because the practice discriminates against families with children, regardless of whether they intended to or not, the state civil rights agency has ruled.
The decision by the Fair Employment and Housing Commission was the first time the commission had ruled a housing practice illegal because of its discriminatory effect, regardless of motive. The decision, released this week, is also the first time a state agency had addressed occupancy limits.
Hawaiian Gardens Case
The case arose in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawaiian Gardens, where a married couple and their infant daughter were denied a unit at the Merribrook Apartments because of the apartment’s occupancy limit.
The commission awarded Morris and Dalee Tolmasov $2,500 each. The denial came at a time of stress in the family and left them stranded in cramped and substandard housing, the commission said.
A lawyer for the former owners of the apartments did not return a telephone call Friday. But civil rights lawyer James Morales called the commission’s ruling a landmark decision.
“We’ve seen restrictive occupancy standards as a tool that many landlords use to circumvent the anti-discrimination laws,” said Morales, of the National Center for Youth Law. “The commission’s decision is really a first step toward a uniform body of law that will help us in stopping these illegal practices.”
The state Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that rental housing discrimination against children violated state civil rights laws. Since then, owners have passed a variety of new rules, including occupancy limits and surcharges of as much as $150 a month for each additional resident of an apartment, Morales said.
Because the amount charged is generally greater than the owner’s cost per resident and can be viewed as a pretext for excluding children, surcharges may be vulnerable under the commission’s ruling, Morales said. But he expected lawyers for the owners to appeal the ruling through the state court system.
The commission said a rule in place through 1986 at the 102-unit apartment complex, limiting rentals to one occupant per bedroom, amounted to illegal discrimination against families with children on two grounds: that it was intended to exclude children and because of its effect on families with children regardless of intent.
The rule was sometimes ignored when three adults wanted to rent a two-bedroom apartment but was enforced strictly against two parents and a child. The commission also said that owners must have realized that the rule would exclude most families with children and offered no other convincing explanation of their motives.
In addition, the commission said a limit of two residents to a two-bedroom apartment disqualified nearly 90% of the renter households with children in the area but only 10% to 13% of households without children. Also, with one temporary exception, no families with children lived in the complex from 1982 to 1986, the agency noted.
The commission did not say what type of occupancy standard might be permissible but noted that state and local health and safety laws would have allowed up to 10 people in a two-bedroom apartment in the Merribrook complex.