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When housing rights clash, someone is shown the door

Swastikas? Indoor miniature horses? Property owners, tenants often at loggerheads on what's allowed


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A tenant in a fair housing dispute used an iguana as a helper animal. Others have used frogs, Sugar Gliders and even miniature horses in their Portland-area rental housing.About eight years ago, an apartment renter called the Fair Housing Council of Oregon to lodge a complaint. Black tenants, he said, were being discriminated against. He felt pressured to move out.

The man said he was leaving, but he wanted the council to know about the situation. The crux of his complaint concerned the building manager’s own apartment. That’s where renters had to go if they wanted to drop off a check, or request a maintenance repair.

The manager’s apartment, the renter said, was adorned with white supremacist posters and a Nazi flag. That sounded like a potential case of housing discrimination to Pegge McGuire, executive director of the council.

But McGuire, who took the reins of the council in March 2012 (after a controversial 2011 for the nonprofit that included the city of Portland temporarily suspending work with the agency), knew that the difference between perceived and illegal discrimination can often be very nuanced.

A 2011 fair-housing law compliance study by the Fair Housing Council for the city found several problems with discrimination that eventually led to a promise of annual surveys of Portland-area rental housing. Although the council’s study was flawed, it pointed to trouble spots in the city.

The Fair Housing Council gets about 4,000 complaints about housing discrimination each year, up from 3,000 just two years ago. The increase may be partially due to Portland’s tight rental market, McGuire says. Landlords can get stricter about whom they rent to, and those who don’t qualify are more likely to feel they were treated unfairly. But there’s one thing about the complaints coming in that McGuire says she can count on — some really tough decisions.

“Housing providers look at the equation as, ‘This is my property, it’s an investment, it’s a business, it affects my livelihood,’ ” McGuire says. “Consumers look at the issue from the perspective, ‘This is my home.’ And home is a very, very emotional issue.”

Consider the Southeast Portland apartment manager with the Nazi decorations. McGuire sent staff to investigate. She sent “secret shoppers,” some black and some white, three separate times pretending to be interested in renting at the complex. If the manager’s apartment was a de facto office, there’d be a discrimination case to pursue.

But none of the secret shoppers ever got into the manager’s apartment or saw the decorations. They met the manager in the laundry room, in a vacant apartment and outside the manager’s apartment, but they never got a look at the Nazi decorations. So Fair Housing decided there was no case to pursue.

“We couldn’t prove the manager had anything that would potentially discourage African-American clients,” McGuire says.

Frogs, horses and an iguana

About half the cases the council investigates involve people with disabilities who believe they are not being legally accommodated. About a year ago the council received a complaint from a woman who said she suffered post traumatic stress disorder as a result of a dog attack. The man who lived across the hallway kept a large pit bull that triggered her PTSD.

Investigators found that the man across the hall had his own disability — epilepsy. The pit bull was a service animal that could sense when its owner had a seizure coming on, at which point it would encourage the owner to lie on the ground. The dog would then put its paws over the man to hold him stationary while he had a seizure.

Council staff encouraged the manager to move one of the tenants to another unit, but neither would agree to go. McGuire says in the end, the council sided with the dog owner because he had been renting his apartment longer. When the clash of rights appears equal, McGuire says, first in wins. The woman with PTSD was allowed to break her lease and move out.

The growing use of service animals to assist people with disabilities has resulted in an emerging category of housing complaints, according to McGuire. Service animals don’t have to be certified. Apartment managers are allowed to ask for documentation that a renter needs a service animal, but they are not allowed to ask about the specific disability. Many apartment managers are seeing notes from doctors or therapists that simply affirm the renter needs an accommodation.

Some of those managers are suspicious, and many of them are upset, according to McGuire.

The strangest service animal request Chuck Hauk has received was for a Sugar Glider, a flying possum from South America. Hauk is housing director for the Lane County public housing agency, and when he received physician-signed paperwork saying the Sugar Glider was needed as a disability accommodation for one of his renters, he did a little research. He discovered that Sugar Gliders “are nocturnal, they make noise all night long and they fling urine and feces,” Hauk says.

Hauk wrote the tenant’s doctor to ask what possible need the Sugar Glider could be meeting. The doctor never responded and the Sugar Glider was nixed. Hauk says he wasn’t surprised the doctor had originally given his consent.

“Doctors are people too and doctors don’t want their patients angry,” he says.

Another woman tenant Hauk investigated was keeping seven frogs in her apartment as therapy animals, each with its own terrarium. Hauk talked to her therapist, who had signed off on the need for the animals. The therapist explained that the woman had psychological problems, grew up in the country, and was soothed hearing the frogs croaking.

But Hauk had a follow-up question.

“You’ve explained to me what the first frog is doing for her,” he recalls asking. “But what’s the second frog doing for her?”

Eventually a compromise allowed the woman as many frogs as one terrarium could hold.

McGuire says a few years ago a complaint came in from a landlord about a tenant keeping an iguana in his apartment when the lease made clear that exotic pets were not allowed.

The iguana’s owner claimed he suffered from sleep apnea and the iguana slept on his chest every night. When he stopped breathing, the iguana would wake him up by smacking him in the face with its tail. The iguana got to stay.

Apparently miniature horses can be trained to sense when an epileptic seizure is about to hit, McGuire says. Federal law, in fact, specifies only dogs and miniature horses — which can live much longer than dogs — can be true service animals, allowed in a variety of public places. McGuire says she’s read of their use elsewhere, but hasn’t had a local miniature horse conflict come across her desk.

Cultural divide

Portland attorney Timothy Murphy, who mostly represents landlords, says he’s had clients who wanted to ask for a higher deposit when a tenant showed up with an animal that might do damage. Murphy tells his clients they can ask for the larger deposit if the animal is a pet, but not if it is a service animal. Not all his clients see the logic in that.

“From a landlord’s perspective, the service animal is just as likely to damage the apartment as a pet,” says Murphy.

Murphy says he’s begun getting another type of case that is vexing clients who own senior housing apartments. Sometimes, he says, property managers report that they don’t think senior applicants for apartments will be able to take care of themselves. Sometimes their appearance at an interview is so disheveled and dirty the manager thinks they need assistance with basic hygiene. Sometimes they appear so forgetful during the interview that the manager is convinced they are suffering early dementia.

In either case, some type of assisted living, not an apartment building that simply rents to seniors, might be more appropriate. But Murphy tells the landlords they can’t make that determination.

“You can’t say no to a tenant who applies based on the fact that they can’t take care of themselves,” Murphy says, adding that he agrees with that legal interpretation.

Letting landlords decide who can rent and who can’t starts them down “a huge slippery slope,” he says, that can lead to wrongful discrimination.

Bob Loewen has been confronting a growing number of complaints involving international students at Oregon State University. Loewen, the city of Corvallis housing program specialist, says that as OSU has become a more popular college destination for students from abroad, apartment managers have had to figure out different ways of doing business. Many international students can’t supply the background criminal checks and credit checks that apartment managers require. Which leaves managers with a dilemma: “How do I know you’re going to pay the rent and be a good risk?” Loewen says.

Fair Housing Council’s McGuire says she’s heard of cases where foreign students left behind damaged apartments, and landlords had no way to collect money for repairs. She says landlords probably can require higher deposits from international students who can’t supply credit and background checks if they charge the same deposit to all tenants who can’t supply the checks, but a test case hasn’t made it to court. She also says her office would probably file a discrimination complaint against a manager who simply refused to rent to foreign students because they could not supply the credit and background checks.

Loewen has taken calls from European students complaining that nobody in Corvallis would rent to them. He’s heard from apartment managers complaining that Middle Eastern students were causing damage by smoking hookahs in their no-smoking apartments.

“What I have learned from Middle Eastern students is, when they hear the words ‘no smoking,’ that means no cigarettes. Cigarettes is smoking, hookah is hookah,” Loewen says.

He’s been teaching apartment managers to be very specific when they explain no- smoking rules up front.

Earlier this year a manager called Loewen asking for help after he rented a two-bedroom apartment to a brother and sister from the Middle East. The manager had discovered thousands of dollars of water damage to their floor.

The cause? The brother used the bathroom and the sister had been taking sponge baths in the kitchen sink “and not doing a good job of cleaning up,” Lowen says.

“Apparently there are cultural issues with people of the same sex using the same bathroom,” Loewen says.

Meanwhile, the brother in the bathroom hadn’t been aware that he needed to purchase and install a shower curtain — a situation Loewen says he’s confronted before.

Loewen called the university, and the international student program provided Arabic translators — one man and one woman — and the sister and brother, he says, were grateful to have somebody explain to them what they needed to do. The sister and brother also agreed to pay for the water damage.

Other managers have told foreign students who have never rented before that they require a co-signer on the lease agreement, and that the co-signer must be a U.S. resident. McGuire says that’s not legal, either — it is national origin discrimination.

Tricky issues

Shelters for women who have been victims of domestic violence have also encountered conflicts where both sides can make strong cases that their rights aren’t being protected. Women in the shelters often have children, sometimes teenage boys.

McGuire says the Fair Housing Council has had to intervene in a case involving a shelter mother who had a 16-year-old boy with her. Sleeping nearby was a 16-year-old single mother who had been sexually abused by a man. The young woman didn’t feel safe with a boy her age so close, but the boy was too young to separated from his mother.

“Do you want to send a 16-year-old (boy) to the men’s shelter by himself?” McGuire asks.

The recommended solution, according to McGuire, is a hotel voucher for the mother with the teen son. But when vouchers aren’t available, the intact family stays in the women’s shelter, McGuire explains, because housing law makes it illegal to discriminate against children younger than 18.

McGuire says in one case she brought the 16-year-olds together. “I tell them I’m sorry, I don’t know what to tell you,” she says.

Family housing disputes increasingly involve grandparents who have taken custody of their grandchildren, McGuire says. Sometimes the grandparents live in senior housing, and other residents don’t want children around. Those residents complain, and management tries to force out the grandparents.

The council’s interpretation of senior housing rules favors management.

Here’s another tricky one: McGuire says many landlords won’t accept applications from renters with felony records. That means people coming out of prison find it difficult to secure housing. And that, McGuire says, makes it more likely they will commit new crimes, because studies show lack of stable housing is a factor in criminal recidivism.

Oregon housing law allows landlords to reject applicants with criminal histories. But there may be a catch, according to McGuire. People in addiction recovery, which is a recognized disability, are protected from housing discrimination. So if a renter with a prison record says he committed his crime because of his addiction and is getting treatment, he just might have legal rights to an apartment.

At least that’s the housing council’s interpretation of the law, which McGuire says hasn’t been challenged in court. If it is, she says, like most of the cases the council gets involved in, it probably will require a tough decision.

“It’s almost never a slam dunk,” she says.