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Couple with 5 kids claims housing discrimination

December 03, 1998|By JULIE E. GREENE

Sarah Rhodes says she and her husband, Randy, have been trying for three months to rent a home for their family, and she wonders whether they are being discriminated against because they have five children.

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The couple, who are looking for a place with at least three bedrooms, have inquired about 30 or 40 houses or duplexes in the Hagerstown and Smithsburg areas, she said.

Sarah Rhodes said she realizes they have a credit problem, but was disturbed when she was told by more than one landlord that the family was too large.

A landlord who had advertised a farmhouse with two or three bedrooms for rent in the Smithsburg area told them they had too many kids and wouldn't rent to them, Rhodes said.

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Another landlord in the Hagerstown area had available a three-bedroom duplex with a big basement, said Rhodes.

In that case, she said, she was told bluntly: "You have too many children."

The couple has five boys, ages 1, 3, 7, 8 and 9.

On the surface, that sounds like it could be discriminatory, said Danielle Gaines, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's regional office in Philadelphia.

It's discrimination to deny a family housing based on race, color, national origin, religion or sex, Gaines said.

The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 also made it discriminatory to deny housing based on disability or familial status.

That means it's discriminatory to deny housing to a family because they have children under the age of 18 or are expecting a child, she said.

HUD has received 14 such complaints from Maryland between Oct. 1, 1997, and Sept. 30, 1998, according to HUD.

That number seems low and could be an indication that many people aren't aware of their rights, said spokeswoman Peggy Johannsen, with the Washington, D.C., HUD office.

In that same time period, 1,113 complaints were filed nationwide either with HUD or similar agencies on a state level, Johannsen said.

Sarah and Randy Rhodes said they are filing a complaint with HUD.

Whenever a complaint is filed, HUD determines whether the complaint is covered by law, and if it is, will investigate, Gaines said.

If investigators find discrimination has occurred, the remedies can range from the complainant getting the housing that had been denied to monetary judgments, Gaines said.

For example, the defendant might have to reimburse the complainant for having to rent housing at a higher price.

The Hagerstown-area landlord who allegedly denied the Rhodes housing because of the number of children they have could not be reached for comment on Monday.

That landlord seemed concerned about the wear and tear on the house by the children, Sarah Rhodes said.

"It's his home. I can't force him to rent to me," said Sarah Rhodes, 26, whose family is living in Sharpsburg with her in-laws.

The Rhodes began looking for a new home after they moved out of a house in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., because the landlord wasn't maintaining the property properly, Sarah Rhodes said.

Rhodes said she needed seven stitches after a windowpane fell and broke across her arm.

Gaines said a landlord cannot dictate how a family chooses to live, but may have a limit on how many people can live on the property.

At issue can be whether the landlord has applied the number limitation across to all applicants and whether the landlord specifically bans children, she said.

For information about fair housing, visit the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Web site at www.hud.gov.

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