The Department of Justice (DOJ) last month filed a lawsuit against the owners and managers of 23 rental homes in Magee, Mississippi for violating the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by discriminating against families with children.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, charges that the defendants engaged in a pattern or practice of violating the FHA or denied rights protected by the FHA by establishing and implementing occupancy standards limiting the number of children in the rental homes owned and/or leased. The complaint also charges that, by refusing to rent a three-bedroom home to a woman with four kids because she had too many children under their occupancy guidelines, the defendants violated the FHA.
As do so many other cases, this action started as a result of a complaint filed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by a woman with four daughters who was searching for a three-bedroom rental home. The woman’s search led her to the defendants, who lease a number of houses in the area. However, when she contacted the owners, they told the applicant that she had too many children to rent a three-bedroom home. While the defendants’ occupancy policy allowed five individuals to occupy the house, it permitted no more than three of the occupants to be children. DOJ alleges that the defendants established similar limitations on the number of children that could live in their two and four bedroom rental homes. After HUD investigated the complaint, it issued a charge of discrimination and the matter was referred to DOJ.
DOJ’s complaint seeks a court order prohibiting future discrimination by the defendants, monetary damages for those harmed by the defendants’ actions, and a civil penalty. As I always add when noting these types of cases, as a defense lawyer, I know there are two sides to the story and I will reserve judgment until I learn more. However, this case gives all a moment to reflect on occupancy standards — which are generally permitted, but which must not be unduly restrictive. Or you might end up needing a lawyer like me.
Just a thought.