Couple at center of housing hearing
State ‘tested’ landlords after race complaint
A Naugatuck couple is at the center of a long-fought issue that led today to a hearing in Hartford over proposed changes to the way the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) investigates fair housing complaints.
Bill and Mary Luth claim the CHRO pursued them relentlessly for a settlement even though the state agency’s own investigators had twice found no merit to a prospective tenant’s complaint against them, and it eventually cost them tens of thousands of dollars in a settlement and attorney’s fees.
The couple serve as the primary example for Connecticut Property Owners Alliance, which is lobbying the Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee for the CHRO procedural reforms.
The couple claimed that after rejecting a prospective tenant on the grounds the tenant did not possess a photo ID, which was required for the lease, that person, who was African-American, filed a complaint based on racial discrimination, even though the property was eventually rented to another African-American person.
The two said they were informed of the investigation months later, and were subject to a visit by a “tester” – a covert investigator pretending to be a prospective tenant, who, they said, misconstrued an innocent comment to have a racially prejudiced connotation.
After a four-year battle, they said, they finally settled after the agency threatened to take it to the Supreme Court.
The CHRO attorney who worked on that case declined to comment.
“It really has changed our lives,” Mary Luth said. “The fear of having to screen a new prospective tenant, the fear of making a mistake, the fear of having testers come and misinterpret words or put down whatever they want to put down.”
BOB DECOSMO, PRESIDENT OF the Connecticut Property Owners Alliance and owner of the Waterbury-based Tenant Tracks landlord resource firm, said the way the CHRO investigates fair housing complaints is fundamentally broken in a way that both allows people to exploit the system and gives the state agency incentive to push for settlements against landlords rather than examine the matter objectively.
Among the list of reforms he said he will present to the committee today are requirements the CHRO screen complaints before serving them on landlords, switch the standard of proof from reasonable cause to preponderance of evidence, limit the number of tenant appeals and allow for landlord appeals, and to limit the kind of financial information landlords need to provide to the CHRO as part of the investigation.
“This is where they go on a witch hunt,” DeCosmo said of the Schedule A financial document the Luths needed to provide.
“They’re getting all the financial information from these landlords so they get to see who’s got bank accounts, who’s got buildings with no mortgages,” he said. “And my contention is they’re picking and choosing not based on the actual merits of the complaint, but on the respondent’s ability to settle.” CHRO attorney Michelle Dumas Keuler said the CHRO is “a substantially equivalent agency” to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and its investigative process is based on HUD’s standard because it must employ those measures to keep that status with the federal agency.
“As a substantially equivalent agency, we are paid by HUD several hundred thousand dollars per year to investigate and prosecute fair housing complaints,” she said. “That payment goes directly to the general fund of the state budget.” DeCosmo said he expects a number of landlords to attend the 10 a.m. hearing today and many more to submit written testimony calling for the procedural changes.
Contact Mike Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @RA_MikePatrick or on Facebook at RA. Mike. Patrick.