Civil rights group says landlords in Sacramento and elsewhere discriminate against the deaf

Published: Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 - 8:31 pm

People who are deaf or hard of hearing routinely are quoted higher prices for rent, receive less information about available housing units and get fewer follow-up calls from landlords compared with people without such disabilities, says a national housing advocacy group that conducted an investigation in communities across the nation, including Sacramento.

The National Fair Housing Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization, on Thursday filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development against landlords and property owners in Sacramento and seven other cities, charging that they engaged in discriminatory practices against people with hearing loss in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The yearlong investigation, which compared the experiences of potential tenants who are deaf or hard of hearing with those of people who have no such impairments, found a pattern of discrimination that is “appalling and illegal,” said the housing alliance’s president, Shanna Smith.

“Testers” who called rental companies via an IP Relay service, which allows people with hearing loss to communicate using the telephone, routinely were rebuffed in their efforts to gather information about rental property, Smith and others said in a national news conference Thursday. People with normal hearing faced far fewer obstacles, the panel said.

Among the property owners identified as engaging in discrimination against the hearing impaired is JCM Partners LLC, which owns and manages commercial and residential properties in Northern California. The company did not return a call for comment from a reporter.

According to the complaint filed against the company, which is based in Concord, tests uncovered a “pattern of discriminatory conduct” occurring “over a period of months” at the company’s Hidden Creek apartment complex on Garfield Avenue in Sacramento.

Upon inquiring about a two-bedroom unit, the complaint says, a leasing agent told a “hearing tester” about two available apartments, for $820 and $850 per month. When the “deaf tester” called via IP Relay minutes later and made an identical inquiry, the agent told her that only one unit was available, for $850 per month. The person without hearing loss received a voicemail message the next day with further information about the property from the housing provider. The person with hearing disability received no such call.

During a follow-up test of the same property, an agent told the “deaf tester” that no two-bedroom apartments were available, whereas a “hearing tester” seeking the same type of unit came away with information about two available units, according to the complaint.

The investigation conducted similar tests in dozens of cities in 25 states. Among its findings:

•  Forty percent of apartment owners and management companies contacted by deaf callers hung up on them at least once; many hung up multiple times.

•  Eighty-six percent offered more information to potential tenants without hearing loss than to deaf callers, including details about available units and specials and discounts.

• Seventy percent quoted higher rental rates to deaf people compared with hearing people who called minutes later and requested information about identical units.

• Fifty-six percent emphasized financial requirements and other policies to deaf callers, such as criminal background and credit checks.

“The scope of the discrimination was much worse than anticipated,” said Howard Rosenblum, chief executive officer of the National Association of the Deaf.

HUD, which has the authority to enforce the Fair Housing Act, will review the complaints and could put pressure on the property owners to change their approach toward prospective tenants who are deaf or hard of hearing, Smith said. Nearly 10 million people in the United States fall into those categories.

“I believe that enforcement changes behavior,” Smith said. “But if we run into roadblocks, we will talk with our counsel about filing lawsuits as well.”

Call The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @Cynthia_Hubert.

Read more articles by Cynthia Hubert

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