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Jan 06

Strengthening Our Community by Affirming Fair Housing

Posted on January 6, 2016 at 10:05 am by Dawn Corrigan

To celebrate Fair Housing Month, on April 29, 2015, the Escambia-Pensacola Human Relations Commission (EPHRC) sponsored “Strengthening Our Community,” a fair housing informational workshop.

The event featured speakers from Fair Housing Continuum, Inc. (FHC), a private non-profit fair housing agency that serves the mid-Atlantic region of Florida; the Florida Commission on Human Relations (FCHR), the state agency charged with enforcing Florida’s civil rights laws; and Legal Services of North Florida (LSNF), a private non-profit offering case representation and advice regarding civil matters, including landlord-tenant issues, to low-income residents of north Florida.

Topics that were covered included recent developments in fair housing law and trends in Florida fair housing complaints; future legislative considerations; and training on accessibility design, reasonable accommodations, and reasonable modifications for persons with disabilities.

DBaade 2
David Baade demonstrates the minimum clear width
for accessible routes through a dwelling unit.

EPHRC Chairman, Pastor Sylvia Tisdale, and Executive Director Rebecca Hale opened the workshop by welcoming attendees and offering a brief overview of the program.

The first guest speaker was David Baade, President and CEO of FHC, whose topic was “Fair Housing for Persons with Disabilities.” Some of the highlights of his talk included:

  • Most fair housing complaints from persons with disabilities that are received by FHC concern one of “the three Ps”: pools, pets, and parking.

  • When screening applicants for housing, “standardization is key.”

  • On the other hand, responses to requests for reasonable modifications shouldn’t be “cookie-cuttered.” Instead, they must be taken on their own individual merits.

  • When is an animal not a pet? When it’s a service, support, companion or therapy animal.

  • Because a service animal isn’t a pet, pet policies and pet deposits don’t apply. In addition, housing providers may not ask for proof of certification of the animal. Not all support animals have certifications.

  • Good news for housing providers: your insurance company cannot deny coverage because of a service animal. (Remember, it’s not a pet!)

Housing Tip 2Housing Tip: Read an interesting article about a particular kind of service animal, Emotional Support Animals, here.

Next, Cole Kekelis, an attorney with FCHR, spoke about current legislative and judicial developments in fair housing. He reviewed the protected statuses that are currently covered by federal and Florida law—race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status (presence of minors in the household), and disability—then reminded the audience that other statuses, such as age (of adults), marital status, or sexual orientation, may be covered by county or local ordinances.

Over 50% of the fair housing complaints received by FCHR—which typically reviews several hundred complaints each year—are from people with disabilities who have requested a reasonable accommodation from a housing provider. Across all protected statuses, the most common complaints are about:

  • The application process;

  • Differing levels of services being offered (to the complainant as compared to other residents) during tenancy; and

  • Retaliatory or punitive behavior after a voluntary departure, such as refusal to refund a security deposit.
Fair housing law also offers protections from “intimidation, coercion, or interference.” Kekelis mentioned several complaints where female tenants alleged violations of this sort from male housing providers. He stressed that such violations are not restricted to sexual harassment, which of course is illegal, but could include any “pattern of pervasive harassment.”

The final speaker was Andrea Roberts from LSNF. She discussed written and verbal leases, and the legal methods of terminating both types under Chapter 83 of the Florida Statutes, which cover landlord-tenant law. Highlights of her talk included:

  • Most eviction cases seen by LSNF involve allegations of nonpayment of rent; and

  • When posting a 3-day notice for nonpayment of rent, landlords should remember that the 3-day time frame does not include weekends or holidays

AR 2

Andrea Roberts reviews the proper
procedures for a legal eviction.

Leslie Powell from LSNF also offered the audience this cautionary reminder about fair housing in the more competitive rental markets that can occur after a natural disaster: “When housing stock goes down, discrimination goes up.”
During the Q & A session at the end of the workshop, several audience members, including attorneys Roberts and Powell, asked Kekelis about fair housing complaints received by his office from Escambia County. He indicated that FCHR received 6 fair housing complaints from Escambia County in the past 4 years. Two were based on sex (female); two on disability; one on religion (the claimant was atheist); one on color; and one on national origin. (Some complaints alleged discrimination based on more than one protected status.) Attendees speculated that the low number of complaints received from Escambia County is because EPHRC handles most of the complaints from our region directly, so they do not reach the office in Tallahassee.

Many thanks to the Escambia-Pensacola Human Relations Commission and its partners for hosting such an informative workshop. We look forward to similar events in the future.