The Department of Justice recently filed suit against the owners of three apartment complexes in Massillon, Ohio. The government alleges that the owners of three communities engaged in systematic discrimination on the basis of race and familial status. Regular readers of this blog recognize, of course, that the Fair Housing Act (FHA) explicitly forbids such discrimination.

In the Complaint, the government alleges that the defendants have (1) denied apartments to African-Americans; (2) misrepresented the availability of units to African-Americans; and (3) treated similarly situated African-American tenants and Caucasian tenants differently. In addition, the owner of the apartment complex has allegedly discriminated against families with children by refusing to rent them upper level apartments and by restricting them to basement-level apartments. The government’s investigation began as a result of numerous complaints from not only residents, but also the owner’s own property managers.

More than 40 years after the enactment of the FHA, it should go without saying that apartment owners cannot discriminate against anyone on the basis of the color or national origin. Owners and management representatives I know work to fight against such unlawful discrimination. While I always want to hear the other side of the story, even the filing of a lawsuit can have a severe negative impact on an apartment owner’s reputation, not only within his or her local community, but also on a national level. As a result, it’s imperative that all property owners and management take affirmative steps to ensure that discrimination is not occurring on their properties and to implement policies and procedures to comply with the FHA.

This case also poses an interesting question – Can property owners discriminate against prospective tenants with small children by restricting them to lower level apartments? It’s easy to see the lure here. Many property managers have been confronted, oftentimes repeatedly, by the resident of a lower level unit who complains about the noise caused by running and jumping children who live in the apartment above them. And what looks like an easy fix is to simply put children on the lowest floor. While you may sympathize with solution, however, you must remember the obligations imposed on you by the FHA – you cannot treat a tenant with children differently than a tenant without children. That means that you cannot do what the defendant in this case has allegedly done by sequestering families to lower level units. If the downstairs tenant has a problem with noise, you can address problems as they arise and determine the best way to deal with noise issues on a case-by-case, day-by-day basis.

Because if you restrict families with children to first floor units, you might need to speak with a lawyer like me.

Just a thought.