FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 1, 2013
Contact: Gary Rhoades, Deputy City Attorney (310-458-4928)
The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office has announced a new
housing seminar in April in recognition of national Fair Housing Month.
The Office also reports a surge of housing discrimination complaints by tenants
or housing applicants seeking reasonable accommodations for their
disabilities. In the last five months, the Office's Consumer Protection
Unit (CPU) received seven such complaints. By comparison, the
office received only three such complaints in Fiscal Year 2011-12. The
CPU’s seminar on April 29 will focus on reasonable accommodation issues.
The CPU accepts complaints for housing discrimination based
on race, religion, national origin, gender, disability, family status, sexual
orientation, and age. However, disability-based fair housing complaints
and inquiries usually exceed all other types.
Despite a range of difficult issues, the CPU manages to help
the parties resolve most of these disputes without litigation--disputes such as
the one that arose when Santa Monica tenant Zelda Alvarado
was diagnosed with a serious respiratory disability. Zelda lived in an
apartment owned and managed by G & K Property Management. The tenants
in the units on two sides of her apartment were smokers. Zelda could
smell the smoke every day and night and began to feel worse. Her doctor
confirmed that this secondhand smoke coming into her unit exacerbated her
Soon afterwards, Zelda learned of a vacancy in a smoke-free
unit in her building. She wrote to G & K, requesting that they
transfer her to the smoke-free unit as an accommodation to her disability. She
included a note from her doctor. When G & K denied her request, Zelda filed
a fair housing complaint with the CPU.
Diane Varady, an investigator with the City Attorney's
Office, began working on the case.
"First, I talked with several staff members at G &
K, which is a fairly large management company," said Varady, who is
retiring in April after thirty-four years at City Hall. "They admitted the
denial of Zelda’s request, and they pointed to their wait-list system, saying
that Zelda could not cut in line ahead of other tenants and applicants.”
Varady discussed the case with Deputy City Attorney Gary
Rhoades, and they considered the facts of Zelda’s case in light of the fair
housing laws requiring landlords and managers to make reasonable accommodations
in their rules and policies so that tenants with disabilities have equal
enjoyment of their units. Did Zelda’s request for a smoke-free apartment
qualify as a reasonable accommodation to G & K’s wait-list rules?
There are two basic legal requirements for a reasonable
accommodation. First, the accommodation must be needed in response to the
nature of the tenant's disability. The doctor's statement had confirmed
that Zelda needed this accommodation. Second, the accommodation request
must be reasonable. This means it does not cause an undue burden, either
administrative or financial; small or modest burdens or costs for the owner are
considered reasonable. As long as the accommodation first requested by
the tenant is reasonable, the tenant may reject alternatives, such as the small
air filter that G & K proposed.
Varady and Rhoades didn't see any evidence of an undue
burden on G & K in allowing Zelda, a current tenant, to move into a vacant
apartment. Making exceptions to wait lists is a classic example of an
accommodation needed to help disabled tenants get the apartments and amenities
they need, whether it's a smoke-free unit, a unit with a ramp, or a parking
spot that's accessible or near the unit. So Varady requested a meeting at
the property with G & K.
"The meeting Gary and I had with staff at the property
was very productive,” said Varady. “It came with a tour of the building and a
brief meeting with the tenant. We discussed the fair housing law, Zelda’s
dire situation, and G & K's wait list rules.”
“At that meeting,” Rhoades added, “the staff began to see
how broad and protective reasonable accommodations are supposed to be.”
Two days later, Zelda called Varady to say that her request
for the new vacant apartment had been approved and that she was moving
that weekend. "Zelda got her reasonable accommodation without having
to resort to litigation," said Rhoades, “That’s our goal every time.”
The CPU has resolved seven fair housing cases in recent
months. They include the following accommodations:
- Lockbox installation: A 91-year-old
disabled tenant had twice fallen in her rented condominium unit, requiring
break-ins by emergency responders. The tenant and Santa Monica Fire
Department's request to install a lockbox with a unit key next to her front
door was rejected by the homeowner's association. After a letter from and
phone conversations with the CPU, the HOA voted again, this time to allow the
- Service animal for child: The disabled
child of a tenant required a service animal. The management company and owner
had already rejected the tenant’s request for a waiver of the building’s no-pet
policy and pet deposit requirement. The CPU wrote a letter and emails and
persuaded the owner to allow the pet and to return the deposit.
- Emotional support animal: A tenant’s
request for an emotional support animal had been rejected based on the fact
that the doctor’s note supporting the request was not specific enough.
The CPU persuaded the owner and owner’s attorney that such medical requests did
not have to name the disability or get into the specifics of how the animal
- The burden of relocation to another unit:
Numerous severely disabled persons using Section 8 vouchers were in
deed-restricted units that were now suddenly subject to unaffordable rent
increases and had been pressured by the owner to move to other buildings
with units restricted to lower rents. The CPU and the Legal Aid
Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) persuaded the housing provider to grant over
twenty reasonable accommodation requests to delay the changes until the tenants
left the units of their own accord.
- Caregivers for tenants: A tenant
with severe disabilities needed a caregiver. She submitted a caregiver
candidate to her landlord, but the landlord refused to respond and then
threatened eviction if the caregiver moved in. The CPU stepped in and
along with LAFLA and persuaded the owner and his attorney that if he failed to
respond to a caregiver request within a reasonable timeframe, he would waive
his right to object to the caregiver.
- Number of emotional support animals:
A landlord with a no-pets building called the CPU. An applicant for one
of her vacancies had two animals that he claimed were emotional support
animals. The landlord was inclined to reject both under the mistaken
belief that she only had to grant accommodations to in-place tenants.
However, she soon agreed to consider the applicant with the animals and the
applicant agreed to get separate medical letters for each animal.
The Consumer Protection Unit also resolved two housing
discrimination matters involving family and religion:
- Religious accommodation: A Jewish family
was interested in a new vacancy at a local apartment building.
However, the open house for viewing apartments and getting applications was
limited to certain evenings where the family’s religion prohibited such
trips. After the family’s request for a religious accommodation was
rejected, the CPU sent an email that persuaded the housing provider to extend
new open-house times.
- Children playing in the common area: The
owner and management of a large apartment building had banned children (and
adults) from playing in the building’s small courtyard. After the
families filed a complaint with the CPU, the office persuaded the owner that
this policy had a discriminatory impact on children and that it had in fact
been implemented to keep children out of the courtyard. The policy was
changed to reflect that most activities in the courtyard could resume.
The Consumer Protection Unit’s seminar on fair housing and
reasonable accommodations is set for April 29, 2013 from noon to 1:30 pm at the
Santa Monica Main Library in its multi-purpose room on the second floor. Participants
are invited to bring a brownbag lunch. Please visit the Consumer
Protection Unit’s website at www.smconsumer.org
to register for the workshop or contact them at 310-458-8336.
 The name
of the tenant has been changed to preserve her privacy.