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D.C. Landlords Sued Over Rent Vouchers

Poor Are Rejected, Rights Group Says

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page B01

A D.C. civil rights group yesterday sued several apartment building owners and property managers, saying they refused to accept tenants who sought to use federal housing vouchers to pay part of their rent.

The named landlords control about 2,000 apartment units across the city -- from such affluent areas as Cleveland Park and the West End to such working-class neighborhoods as Brightwood, Douglass and Greenway.

The Savoy at 1101 New Hampshire Ave. NW is one of the apartment complexes named in the Equal Rights Center suit. (Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

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According to the lawsuits, testers from the Washington-based Equal Rights Center were repeatedly turned down when they responded to newspaper ads about apartments available at those and other buildings. Testers in each case sought to use Housing Choice Vouchers, which allow tenants to pay 30 percent of their income as rent; federal funds pay the balance.

District law bars landlords from discriminating based on the source of a tenant's income, or how the renter would pay. But advocates for the poor say such rejections are widespread and add an extra layer of difficulty for low-income renters searching for decent housing in Washington.

The wait to receive a voucher in the District is about six years, and recipients lose their vouchers if they cannot find a place to accept them within 12 months. Nearly 11,000 District households currently have vouchers; at least 30,000 are on a waiting list.

Refusing to accept vouchers "affects the ability to live in a safe neighborhood, to live near decent schools, to live close to work," said lawyer Michele A. Roberts, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld who helps represent the center. Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they hoped tenants would join the effort.

Roberts said many landlords reject the vouchers because they don't want low-income tenants in their buildings. Because D.C. voucher-holders in the District are disproportionately African American, Roberts said, race may be a factor as well. "They're keeping out people with limited means, who are probably black," Roberts said.

Most companies named in the lawsuits did not respond to telephone messages left yesterday afternoon. But Douglas Mueller, managing director of Sawyer Realty Holdings in College Park, denied that the two buildings his firm manages reject voucher recipients.

"We do take them," Mueller said, after being informed about the lawsuits. He said he did not "necessarily" believe that Sawyer employees had said vouchers were not being accepted at Walden Commons, in the 1300 block of Missouri Avenue NW, and Randolph Towers, in the 3900 block of 14th Street NW. Mueller referred additional questions to his firm's attorney, who did not respond to two voice-mail messages.

Other companies accused in the lawsuits were Gelman Trust and Gelman Management Co. Inc. which own and manage 16 apartment buildings; the owners of four complexes and E&G Group, which manages the four, Fort Chaplin Apartments, Eagles Crossing Apartments, Meadow Green Courts Apartments, and Terrace Manor apartments; and Lynwood Apartment Associates and Randolph Towers Apartments LLC, which own the buildings that Sawyer Realty manages.

Each of the building owners belongs to the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, which offers an annual seminar on the District's anti-discrimination laws. Nicola Whiteman, an AOBA spokeswoman, said that because D.C. law requires landlords to accept the vouchers, some building owners have grown frustrated because of voucher-holders who are disruptive and because the D.C. Housing Authority, which administers the voucher program, has failed to pay on time.

Such issues do not lessen a landlord's obligation to accept vouchers, said Roderick V.O. Boggs, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which is representing the Equal Rights Center in the lawsuits in conjunction with pro bono lawyers from private firms.

"To assume that all voucher-holders are bad tenants -- that's what this law was designed to stop," Boggs said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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