Roommate Seekers Must Mind Anti-Discrimination Laws

By Sara Gebhardt
Saturday, February 18, 2006

Q: When you are looking for a roommate, how restrictive can you be in the advertisement? No pets, drinking, etc., seems reasonable, but can one vet people due to their religion? -- Germantown

A: For apartment owners, it is unlawful to discriminate (in print or otherwise) against prospective residents based on race, color, religion, gender, handicap, familial status or national origin. The same restrictions apply to non-owners looking for roommates, said Craig Gurian, an anti-discrimination lawyer who also teaches about housing issues at Fordham University Law School in New York.

"Roommates may not be covered under the substantive provisions of the Fair Housing Act, but anything that excludes a protected class is illegal," Gurian said. That's because the act prohibits both the actual practice of discrimination and making discriminatory advertisements for housing sales and rentals, he said. It applies to anyone who is sharing the financial responsibility for a rental property.

"This falls into a small zone of discussion where Congress said, 'If you're going to discriminate, you're not going to be able to pollute public means of communication to do so.' . . . But there's been such little enforcement in it that many people probably do not realize this conduct is illegal," Gurian said.

I have a hamster, which is in a cage at all times. I rent a room from an individual who wants to charge me a fee of $25 a month. Is that even conceivable? I mean, I can understand if it were a dog or cat, but a hamster? -- San Diego

Conceivable? Apparently. Reasonable? Doubtful.

Although landlords generally can do as they please when it comes to charging pet rent, a fee for a hamster seems excessive. Pet rent normally applies to cats and dogs, rather than small, caged animals such as hamsters, gerbils and fish. That's because non-caged animals are likely to affect an apartment or building the most. A hamster is probably not going to cause $25 in upkeep per month or the equivalent damage to a room in a house.

But given that your landlord is allowed to create his own policies, you should ask about the reasoning behind this fee. It could be that your landlord simply doesn't want to hear a hamster running on a squeaking wheel or smell hamster fumes anymore. Obviously, not everybody who rents you a room will feel inclined to ask for extra money for your hamster, so if you don't want to pay $25 a month, you may want to look for a new home for you and your pet.

My radiator has been making an unusually loud noise, waking me up early in the morning. I've approached my landlord several times about it, and he says he's working on getting someone in to fix it. It's been a couple of weeks, and I really want this fixed soon. I have a good relationship with the maintenance supervisor, who has previously been quick to fix problems. Is there anything I can do to press the issue but not be a jerk about it? -- Washington

Continue to ask your landlord about the status of the repairs, and ask for a more specific answer about when someone will work on the radiator. Approach your landlord with a good spirit. Tell him that you are happy with the way he has handled other problems and are hoping he can take care of the radiator as soon as possible because it is disrupting your sleep.

If you want, you can sugarcoat your request by mentioning that you are aware that technicians who deal with old radiators can be hard to come by but that you would settle for any kind of advice about how to combat the noise problem while you wait for such a technician.

Often, maintenance personnel (and long-term apartment residents) have ideas about how to combat specific noises or problems with radiators. Tell your landlord that you hope he can help you find solutions. You should also put this request in writing to make it more official.

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