From staff and wire reports

New housing units make big gains in region last year

The number of new housing permits issued in most of Southern California increased markedly in 2002, according to figures released by Burbank-based Construction Industry Research Board.

The Inland Empire, which is benefiting from high housing costs in neighboring San Diego and Orange counties, continued a strong upward trend last year, with Riverside County posting a 20.1% gain in new units over a year ago and a 48.6% jump over 2000. San Bernardino County, which has been slow in catching up from the recession, was up 24.4% from a year ago.

Orange County bounced back from a sluggish 2001, posting a 36.7% increase in the number of permits issued for single-family homes and condos last year at 11,815, up from 8,646 a year ago, but still lagged behind 2000, when 12,376 building permits were obtained. Multifamily building permits, which doubled in 2002 from the prior year, contributed to the overall gain.

Los Angeles County posted a modest 6.4% gain. San Diego and Ventura counties, which peaked earlier in the post-recession business cycle, declined last year. Starts in San Diego County were down 9%, while Ventura County permits were down 27%.


Misconduct ruling favors realty firms

Owners of real estate companies can't automatically be sued under the Fair Housing Act when one of their brokers discriminates against a minority seeking to buy or rent a home, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The nation's highest court unanimously said Congress didn't intend to alter the traditional legal rules limiting employer responsibility for worker misconduct. The decision, a setback for a Southern California interracial couple, overturns a federal appeals court ruling that real estate company owners and officers are legally responsible for worker wrongdoing under the Fair Housing Act, even if they weren't aware that discrimination was taking place.

The decision is a victory for the real estate industry, which said the lower court ruling would unfairly punish innocent business owners.

"We cannot conclude that Congress intended, through silence, to impose this kind of special duty of protection upon individual officers or owners of corporations," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the court.

Mary Ellen and Dave Holley sued Triad Realtors in Twentynine Palms and its then-owner David Meyer. The Holleys say Triad agent Grove Crank undermined their $146,000 bid to buy a new home in 1996 and dismissed them as a "salt and pepper team." The house was later sold for $20,000 less.

The couple said Meyer had a duty to supervise the office because he was the designated "officer/broker" under California's real estate licensing rules. Meyer said he couldn't be sued because he wasn't personally involved in any wrongdoing.

The justices sent the case back to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which will decide whether Meyer can be sued under another legal theory.

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