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Court OKs Checking Income of Tenants : Law: State’s civil rights act does not extend to economic discrimination, the court rules.

TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

The California Supreme Court refused Thursday to extend the state civil rights act to bar discrimination against the poor, ruling that landlords may deny rentals to people who fail to meet minimum-income standards.

The decision came in the first major review of the act by the conservative high court and marked an abrupt departure from past decisions granting broad protections even against forms of bias not specifically covered by the law.

The justices ruled 5 to 2 that the Unruh Act of 1959, while barring bias based on race, religion and other traditional categories, does not prohibit “economic discrimination” by businesses in public accommodations.

The court majority, in an opinion by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, concluded that the income requirement in which applicants must have monthly incomes three times the rent--was a lawful means for landlords to screen out tenants most likely to default on the rent.

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The court said also that even if female renters are disproportionately affected by the income standard, they may not sue for sex discrimination without evidence of intentional bias. In contrast to federal anti-bias statutes, the state act requires proof of intent in any kind of discrimination, the justices said.

In a biting dissent, Justice Allen E. Broussard, backed “in principle” by Justice Stanley Mosk, accused the court of making “a full retreat from the goal of equal access and opportunity” and said the decision meant that the poor “will no longer be able to challenge arbitrary and invidious discrimination.”

While the ruling represented a sharp setback to civil rights advocates, the court left intact previous rulings that extended protections beyond those listed in the act--such as discrimination based on physical appearance (i.e. long hair worn by men) and on homosexuality. In contrast to economic bias, those forms of bias represented discrimination based on personal characteristics the act was intended to protect, the court said.

Manuel A. Romero, a lawyer representing two Northern California women challenging the income-standard in the case, assailed Thursday’s decision as “incredible and devastating.” Legislation will be sought to overturn the ruling and an effort will be made under federal anti-housing discrimination law to invalidate the income requirement because of its adverse impact on the poor and minorities, he said. “In its ruling, the court reflected an anti-poor, anti-women, anti-people-of-color sentiment,” Romero said.

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State Deputy Atty. Gen. Marian M. Johnston, representing the state Fair Employment and Housing Commission in the case, said the ruling “could be used as a subterfuge to keep people out, even though they have good track records as tenants.”

Attorney Justin Clouser of the Poverty Law Center, a legal organization that represents the poor in Orange County, agreed.

“We are already facing a crisis in affordable housing in Orange County,” Clouser said. “Those renters who are trying to survive will be at the mercy and whim of landlords.”

Clouser said the decision also seems to give landlords the right to examine a potential renter’s financial background more extensively than needed.

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“What’s to stop a landlord from saying, ‘I want to see a complete financial statement from you. Your income doesn’t look good; I’m going to up your security deposit,’ ” he said. “This is frightening and a hindrance to the working poor.”

However, Harry D. Miller of Oakland, attorney for the landlords in the case, denied that the decision would significantly curtail the legitimate aims of the act. “The ruling still protects against discrimination based on personal characteristics,” Miller said.

The case arose in 1985 when two welfare recipients, Muriel Jordan and Tamela Harris, sought apartments in Woodland but were turned down because their monthly AFDC benefits of $698 were less than three times the monthly rent.

The two women brought suit, charging that they were unfairly discriminated against because of their economic status. They should be given a chance to show that they could meet the monthly rent, the women said.

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