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September 8, 2004
 Eda Suh, Deputy City Attorney, (310) 458-88327

May and Alan Wong, mother and son owners of an apartment building at 1048 19th Street in Santa Monica, settled a fair housing complaint filed by Donna M. Thomas.  Thomas, a mother who sought a rental unit for herself and her seven-year old daughter in Santa Monica, filed a complaint with the City Attorney’s Office alleging that she was denied a vacant apartment by the landlords because she has a child. The city investigated and “tested” the situation, and found ample evidence supporting the housing discrimination allegation. 

Thomas alleged that in September 2003, she found the one-bedroom vacancy listed on the internet, and set up an appointment to see the unit with May Wong.  During the telephone call, May Wong asked Thomas how many people would live in the unit; Thomas answered she and her seven-year old daughter would live there.  At that point May Wong indicated she did not think the one-bedroom would work for two people, and hung up; Wong never showed up for the scheduled appointment, and refused to return any of Thomas’ follow-up calls. 

Thomas suspected Wong refused to rent to her because Thomas had a daughter.  The next week, Thomas called May Wong again, but this time gave a different name; at that time, May Wong again asked Thomas how many people would live in the apartment and Thomas said it would be Thomas and her daughter.  May Wong promised to call Thomas back, but never did. 

In order to confirm her suspicions of child discrimination, Thomas then had a male friend call May Wong to inquire about the vacancy.  The friend called May Wong and said that he was a single father interested in the one-bedroom rental for himself and his child, who would be living with him half of the year.  May Wong hesitated, and the friend said he would see if the child’s mother could take the child for the whole year.  May Wong encouraged him to do so.  Later the friend called May Wong and told her that he would have to have his child half of the year; May Wong promised to call him back but never did. 

Thomas then filed a housing discrimination complaint with the City Attorney’s Office, Fair Housing Unit.

After interviewing witnesses and investigating the complaint, the city “tested” the discrimination allegation, using two trained testers from the Housing Rights Center.  The two “tester” applicants called May Wong to inquire about the vacancy.  Wong asked both applicants how many people would occupy the unit, and abruptly ended the calls when informed that the unit would be for more than one occupant.  In addition to the testers, the Housing Rights Center conducted an on-site tenant survey.  Both the testing and the survey confirmed that the landlords enforced a policy of limiting the one-bedroom unit to single occupants.   At the time of the vacancy, there were no children living in the four-unit building.  The vacant unit was eventually rented to a single male. 

The city concluded there was ample evidence to support Thomas’ allegation that the landlords refused to rent to her based on her status as a parent and occupancy of a minor child. Local, state and federal law prohibit discrimination against families with children. This includes potential tenants in the application stage, as well as tenants already living in an apartment.  

The evidence here is that May Wong repeatedly refused to rent the vacant one-bedroom to anyone but a single occupant, which suggests a policy of limiting the one-bedroom unit to single occupancy.  “Many people, including landlords and tenants, do not understand that limiting one-bedroom units to single occupants is discriminatory and illegal,” explained Deputy City Attorney Eda Suh, who handled this matter.  Federal, state, and local laws prohibit familial status discrimination, and limitations on the number of tenants or occupants in the rental unit raise discrimination problems if the effect is to ban occupancy by families with children.   The law has held that a landlord’s policy of limiting a one-bedroom unit to one occupant is “suspect” because it has a disparate impact on single parents with children.  

 “The conduct in this case clearly rises to the level of housing discrimination under our local laws, as well as potentially in violation of similar state and federal housing laws” said Suh.  "Santa Monica Municipal Code 4.28.030 (SMMC Chapter 4.28, commonly referred to as 'Housing Anti-Discrimination Code') specifically prohibits landlords from refusing to rent based on the “potential or actual occupancy of a minor child.” 

Rather than face litigation, the landlords last week opted to settle the matter with the city under the settlement agreement in which the landlords would: 

Pay $500.00 to the complainant, Donna M. Thomas (which is the statutory maximum under the city’s Housing Anti-Discrimination Code, SMMC § 4.28.060);

  • Pay the city $500.00 as reimbursement for investigation costs;

  • Attend a management training course certified by The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles; and

  • Abide by a two-year injunction against future violations of the Santa Monica Housing Anti-Discrimination Code.

“Not knowing about the law does not excuse discriminatory conduct on the part of landlords and other business owners,” said Suh.  “We encourage landlords and businesses to protect themselves from violations by learning about their legal obligations and duties . . . the landlords in this case could very well have prevented this matter if they had been properly trained about fair housing,” noted Suh.

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