Monday, Nov. 24, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
The federal government recently settled a complaint against the owners of Las Vegas apartments who allegedly discriminated against families, the third such case in the valley in two years.
The repeated cases involving hundreds of apartments mean “there definitely is discrimination against families with children” in the Las Vegas Valley, said Chuck Hauptman, a representative of the Housing and Urban Development Department’s San Francisco office of fair housing and equal opportunity.
He said the agency wants valley landlords to be on notice that this is illegal, a message that’s especially crucial when families with children are among the many seeking rental housing in the wake of the valley’s foreclosure crisis.
In the most recent case, which was settled in October, HUD, rather than the victim, had filed the complaint, indicating the alleged discrimination was flagrant and easy to prove.
The case involved Sativa Johnson, a 32-year-old mother of an infant son, who moved to the area in October 2007 from North Dakota. A $10-an-hour Wal-Mart employee at the time, she found the $465 monthly rent at Desert Rose apartments on 28th Street ideal. But when the manager told her she couldn’t move in with her son, Johnson decided to leave the boy in the care of her mother, who lives in Sacramento.
Six months later, that arrangement — calling six times a day, driving nine hours to visit her son on weekends — proved too much to bear. She left Las Vegas in June.
By that time, HUD had discovered Desert Rose’s policy and informed Johnson it was launching an investigation.
According to Bryan Greene, general deputy secretary assistant at the agency’s office of fair housing and equal opportunity, the federal government has been more aggressive in carrying out “secretary-initiated complaints” in the past three years. The idea is to take on cases that seem easier to prove and affect a lot of people.
“If we want to make wide-ranging change, we want to take on cases that can help the greater community,” Greene said. “These are cases where ... if you’re a large apartment complex owner and you’re seeing hundreds of tenants, you ought to know better.”
Desert Rose has about 240 apartments, he said. Management at the complex said only the regional manager for the limited liability corporation that owns Desert Rose could speak about the case. The regional manager could not be reached for comment.
In the past three years, HUD has initiated 28 cases nationwide; only six were filed in the two years before that. Those cases are based on alleged discrimination on the basis of religion, race, nationality — and families. Two of the Las Vegas Valley cases, including the one against Desert Rose, were filed in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30; one was filed the year before.
The first one, concerning Summer Place apartments, also on 28th Street, was settled in January. The owners agreed to pay $75,000 total to four families the apartment management evicted or attempted to evict. Some of the settlement money was set aside to compensate any victims who come forth in the future. The owners also agreed to stop advertising the apartments as an “adult community.”
Similarly, at Desert Rose, the owners agreed to pay Johnson $30,000 and to set aside money for any other victims, as well as to stop the policy of not renting to children.
As for housing discrimination complaints made by tenants to the federal government, the share involving families has increased during the past three years, going from about 8 percent of all cases to 19 percent.
Greene said the federal Fair Housing Act allows owners or landlords to provide housing to seniors only, but in that situation, 80 percent of the apartments or houses involved must include at least one resident over 55. This was not the case in Summer Place or Desert Rose, HUD found.
Johnson now lives with a brother in Arlington, Texas, where she says, she is reconnecting with her 22-month-old son.
She said landlords who don’t rent to children “really affect people’s lives ... because it’s hard to separate kids from families for no reason.”
Kim Kendrick, the assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity who initiated the complaint, said “40 years after the Fair Housing Act, a family with children should not have to move out of state to find housing.”
Hauptman said the issue is especially important in the current economic situation, with Nevada leading the nation in foreclosure rate 22 months running.
“The rental housing market has gotten tight and anything that puts up a barrier to families will only make things more difficult.”