Interplay Between Anti-Housing Discrimination Laws, Massachusetts Anti-Lead Paint Poisoning Statute Results In $9,500 Fair Housing 'Tester-Initiated' Squeeze Against Real Estate Brokerage, Landlords; Property Owners Also Agree To Remediate Lead Hazards In 'Pre-1978 Built' Rental Homes
- A local real estate agency has agreed to settle allegations that the company and its agents violated the federal Fair Housing Act by discouraging families with children from renting over concerns that units might contain lead-based paint hazards, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced .
Delap Real Estate LLC,  and two area property owners will pay a combined $9,500 to the Housing Discrimination Project(1) in Holyoke. Delap also has agreed to use the phrases “children welcome” or “family friendly” in all rental advertisements for the next year and to help develop a public service campaign about fair housing for radio broadcast, according to two settlement agreements approved by HUD.
The agreements do not “constitute an admission by Respondents of any violation of any statute or regulation,” according to the documents, which also state that the agreements do not represent a finding of liability. Reached by the Gazette , a co-owner of the agency and one property owner each said they had not engaged in any discriminatory practices.
Under the Fair Housing Act, it is unlawful to deny or limit housing because a family has children under the age of 18, and to make statements that discriminate against families with children. Children may be excluded, however, under the Fair Housing Act’s exemption for housing for older persons.
In a statement emailed to the Gazette, Delap Real Estate broker and co-owner Carla Ness wrote that the real estate agency fully agrees with a HUD official’s statement that “families with children have a right to the same housing choices as other families.”
“Although we do not believe that Delap discriminated in any way when we responded to inquiries by HDP (Housing Discrimination Project) testers concerning renting properties built prior to 1978, we decided it was in everyone’s best interest, especially the public we serve, to reach a settlement with HUD and HDP,” Ness wrote. “As part of that settlement, Delap is happy to help HDP with its public service ad campaign because we feel it will help more families to be informed about the Fair Housing Act and their right to live in a healthy home. We believe that it is our job as Realtors to inform and help everyone with their real estate needs.”(2)
The agreements are the result of complaints filed with HUD by the Housing Discrimination Project on July 24 and Aug. 11. The organization alleged that when it responded to online ads placed on Craigslist, Delap imposed a “preference or limitation based on familial status” — a claim the real estate agency denied, according to HUD. The agreements name Jessica Lapinski and Meghan McCormick as the real estate agents involved.
The properties were in Florence and Holyoke, and Delap agreed to settle the allegations to avoid further litigation, according to the agreements.
HUD spokeswoman Shantae M. Goodloe told the Gazette that the allegations were slightly different in each case and that the Housing Discrimination Project and property owners agreed to resolve the matter during the investigation. HUD made no determination on the merits of the allegations.
The Florence property, a single-family home on Liberty Street, is owned by Debra Bercuvitz and Kris Thomson, who have agreed to pay a $3,000 penalty within 30 days. The Holyoke property is owned by Mary F. Reynolds.
Kris Thomson said he and his wife, Debra, are “completely and fully innocent” and that they have a history of renting to families with children at their Liberty Street property.
“We in fact did not discriminate; we didn’t have the opportunity to discriminate because nobody ever applied,” Thomson said. “Not that we would have. We had no idea any of this was going on.”
The property owners in both cases have agreed to eliminate lead at the properties in question by hiring a state-licensed lead remover, according to the agreements.
MFHC also preserves homeownership, by advocating for distressed homeowners in mortgage lending cases, and by assisting victims of foreclosure rescue scams.
MFHC accepts over 300 housing discrimination complaints per year from the general pubic, and has obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars for victims of housing discrimination. MFHC has also successfully advocated for affordable loan modifications allowing homeowners to remain in their home and avoid foreclosure. In addition to this legal work, MFHC provides extensive education and outreach services to community groups, service providers, landlords, realtors, newspapers and others.
(2) Delap also agreed to include language in its contracts with property owners stating that the owners must comply with the Massachusetts Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control Act, according to HUD.