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Renters' Rights

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Kim Kendrick
Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity
Tuesday, April 18, 2006; 2:00 PM

Kim Kendrick is the Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity for the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency. She is tasked with administering federal fair housing laws and establishing national policies that mandate all Americans have equal access to the housing of their choice. Prior to that, Kendrick was the former Senior Counselor to HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson. In that position, she advised and represented Secretary Jackson on a wide variety of HUD programs, policies and strategies.

Kendrick is a Pittsburgh native and received her bachelor of arts in sociology from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. She then received her law degree from the University of Pittsburgh Law School.

She was online to answer your questions about renters' rights and fair housing laws.

For more advice on apartment searching, check out our special feature: Think Smart: Apartment Hunting Made Easy .

The transcript follows below.

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Boston, Mass.: We recently moved into downtown Boston from the D.C. area. We expected things to be old and not updated, but the place we are in suffers from absentee owner neglect (oven clean setting and indicator lights broken, exposed wiring in bathroom, moldy bathtub lining, and unexplained "smell" downstairs). We attempted to contact the owner with no luck. He finally contacted us, but only to ask where the rent check was. We said we had some issues and he told us to email him, which we have done, twice. No response. We thought about withholding the rent to get his attention again, but honestly, we just want out. Is there any way for us to get out of our lease based on his lack of response and the horrible condition of the condo? Can we call the Department of Health? We are attempting to sublet but nobody seems to want it, I don't blame them.

Kim Kendrick: Thank you for submitting your question, however, the specific concern you have does not fall under the Fair Housing Act. You should contact your local Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Office. Thank you.

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Washington, D.C.: I moved into a rented condo in Columbia Heights in January and the building's fire alarm has continually beeped since then. I've called the fire marshal, who put my building on a 24-hour watch as well as writing to all members of D.C. City Council. As it's still beeping, although at least, they moved the beeping from early morning to afternoon, is there anything I can do?

Kim Kendrick: Thank you for submitting your question, however, the specific concern you have does not fall under the Fair Housing Act. I suggest you contact your landlord. Thank you.

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Washington, D.C.: The refrigerator in my apartment is old and does not cool well and causes many of my vegetables to spoil. In addition, it is missing one of the side shelves, making it difficult to store items in the fridge. I have told my landlord about this problem, but he will not fix the fridge, find a replacement shelf, or do anything about it at all. Is he required to do something? I pay my rent in full every month and am an excellent tenant.

Kim Kendrick: Thank you for submitting your question, however, the specific concern you have does not fall under the Fair Housing Act. I suggest you contact your landlord. Thank you.

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Marin County, Calif.: Recently I received a "90-Day Notice of Termination of Tenancy" at the end of my lease on June 30, 2006.

That date will constitute the culmination of four problematic years, not of my making, at this location.

The apparent reason for this action is based on a differing pricing opinion between Section 8 housing and my third and current landlord at the same location.

I came to this location after an accident and on-going recovery. After paying my life's savings for rent and medical expenses, I was lucky and grateful to get HUD housing.

But my experience with landlords, particularly at this location, is that they have lied, cheated, harassed, manipulated, and generally failed to solve problems.

On the other hand, my attorney friends here get immediate attention.

My list of misrepresentation from this landlord is long. What can I do to get some dignity and sense of self-respect back? Especially after the harmful stress produced by poor treatment?

Kim Kendrick: Thank you for submitting your question,however,the specific concern you raised does not fall under the protections of the Fair Housing Act. I suggest you contact your nearest HUD office for further assistance. Thank you.

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Chicago, Ill.: In 1995, you left HUD to become the General Counsel for the District of Columbia Housing Authority. In your sworn testimony before the House Banking and Urban Affairs Committee (2005), you described your (attorney) duties as defending the Housing Authority from fair housing complaints by public housing residents and HUD. In that same testimony, you suggested the Fair Housing enforcement procedures be amended to make the complaint process more "complainant friendly and quick." You even suggested a new process with less paperwork that could operate "without the involvement of lawyers and the inevitable delays (they) can bring". Since then, the GAO has issued a very critical report about the HUD Fair Housing complaint process. Will HUD's response to the GAO report result in more paperwork or do you still plan to make the system less "friendly and quick?"

Kim Kendrick: Yes, we want to provide prompt and user-friendly customer service to the public. We are exploring various ways to achieve that.

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Question from a landlord: If I rent out my second home, myself (no property manager) how picky can I get with potential renters? What is a legitimate turndown versus not legitimate?

I'm pretty strict about no pets, no kids, no "huge families camping out in the house even though only one person signed the lease." It's a brand spanking new house and I don't want it trashed.

As an owner, do I actually have to rent it to ANYONE who happens to be able to come up with three months rent (my stipulation) and doesn't have bad credit?

Kim Kendrick: The Fair Housing Act does not prescribe what reasons landlords must use in making their business decisions; it only says that you CANNOT discriminate on an unlawful basis in making those decisions. For example, you cannot decide not to rent to someone because they have kids. However, the Fair Housing Act's general provisions do not apply to landlords who own only three single-family houses. Still, the law says you cannot discriminate when you place an advertisement to rent that house. You can't say "no kids" in an ad, or tell people that when they come to apply.

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Orono, Maine: HUD has recently sued newspapers and some online list services including the popular Craigslist for alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act in the wording of classified advertisements for rental housing. The ads weren't overtly discriminatory in most cases. In fact, Craigslist says that it got into trouble because of ads that listed apartments in "nice neighborhoods" or "near a church."

Can you explain HUD's rationale for bringing these lawsuits? Is there a list of words or phrases that is prohibited for use in advertisements under the Fair Housing Act?

Kim Kendrick: First, thanks for that question. I want to be clear: HUD has not sued Craigslist. There is, at least, one private lawsuit against Craigslist for discriminatory advertising. HUD has also received some complaints from individuals alleging discriminatory ads on Craigslist and other web sites. I can't speak for the private lawsuit, but the complaints with us, against a variety of Web sites, allege ads where people say they don't want to rent to "blacks," "Muslims," or "kids." HUD does not put out lists of "words or phrases" that violate the law; there are no bright lines, but you certainly can't say "no blacks" or "no kids." We look at each ad in context.

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Washington, D.C.: "We want to provide prompt and user-friendly customer service to the public. We are exploring various ways to achieve that."

But you keep giving the same non-answer to every question posted here. This chat was billed as being about renters' rights in general, not just FHA-specific complaints. Can you please address the issues these posters have raised?

Kim Kendrick: I wish I could answer questions on all renters' rights, but most of your rights are the province of state and local laws. The federal government has an obligation to make sure that no one faces unlawful discrimination--for those reasons prohibited under the Fair Housing Act (race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, and disability). I would like to answer any questions you have along those lines. Sorry for the confusion.

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Arlington, Va.: Can a lessor permissibly limit the number of tenants living in a rental property?

Kim Kendrick: Good question! A landlord can limit the number of people living in an apartment, provided that he/she does not discriminate on an illegal basis (i.e., national origin, or against families with children). HUD has issued guidance where we say, as a rule of thumb, a standard that limits two person per bedroom is reasonable. If it's a large house with large rooms, however, an exception may be warranted. That guidance is on our web page at www.hud.gov/fairhousing.

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Washington, D.C.: How do communities for the elderly permissibly exclude younger persons and families with children?

Kim Kendrick: I'd be happy to answer that! The Fair Housing Act does say it's unlawful to discriminate against families with children, but it makes an exception for "housing for older persons." There are three kinds of "senior" housing that may exclude families with children: (1) housing where everyone is 62 or older; (2) housing where 80% of the households have at least one occupant 55 and older (where the provider also verifies ages); and (3) housing operated under State or federal programs that the HUD Secretary has determined constitutes "elderly" housing. There is detailed guidance on our Web site at www.hud.gov/fairhousing

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Baltimore, Md.: 1st Where can I find the fair housing laws for renters?

2nd

Can a previous landlord continue to discredit the renter who is applying to another apartment complex? There was an eviction due to miss communications. The landlord received the rent payment late but communications were crossed on the day of the eviction?

Kim Kendrick: The Fair Housing Act, the law I enforce, does apply to renters. You can learn all about it on our Web site at www.hud.gov/fairhousing. The issue you describe, however, sounds like a landlord-tenant issue, and not one of "fair housing" in the sense that the Fair Housing Act addresses discrimination on the basis of race, religion, etc. Notwithstanding, I encourage you to review the information on our site and see if it applies to your situation.

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washingtonpost.com: Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (HUD)

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Herndon, Va.: I live in a very nice community (or least it used to be). Most of us are single with no children. Recently a family (a very large family) moved into a small two bedroom apartment. The impact has been enormous.

Their children climb cars, fight, run around all hours of the night, yell, scream, blast their music with opened windows, and say very crude things to people.

If an apartment manager thinks that a family's behavior would not be consistent with the communities desires, can the manager just say no to the applicant?

Kim Kendrick: Thanks for that question. I hear this one a lot. Landlords can enforce reasonable rules on tenant behavior. Landlords cannot, however, have a blanket policy of discrimination against families with children. For example, a landlord can't just look at a family with children and say, "No, you won't fit here."

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Arlington, Va.: Thank you for all your helpful information about what the Fair Housing Act does NOT cover in answering the majority of the questions posted so far. How about you tell chatters what the Act DOES cover so they can ask more informed questions?

Kim Kendrick: Certainly, and sorry for the confusion. The Fair Housing Act deals with discrimination in housing. You cannot discriminate on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin, sex, familial status, or disability. Whatever your policy, you cannot make your decisions based on one of these factors.

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Virginia: "Familial status" is one of the protected grounds, but it sounds like a double-edged sword. Why can't you say "no kids" but you can say "no cousins, aunts, uncles," etc. Why can you have Mom, Dad and 6 kids move in, but not Mr. and Mrs. Childless Tenant and their two nieces who are attending GWU? Blood is blood, after all, and I'd much rather have the adult nieces rather than 6 rowdy kids, either as a landlord renting the house or as a neighbor.

Kim Kendrick: Congress passes the laws, and said discrimination against families with children shall be unlawful. You're correct they did not address adults.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I was approved for an apartment over a week, I was told by the property manager that after I submitted all the paperwork with my employment verification (pay stubs and letter from my part-time job) I could move in. It's been over a week and now I'm being told that it's going to be another week before know if I can move in. My question is in this day and time as fast as everything is, I feel like I'm being discriminated against and just prolonging the process, Who can I talk to?

Kim Kendrick: You say you encountered discrimination. On what basis did they treat you differently? The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status (families with children). There are many housing practices that you may consider "unfair" that wouldn't violate the Fair Housing Act. But if you believe you have experienced discrimination on one of the bases described above, please call us at our toll-free number: 1-800-669-9777. We are also on the Web at www.hud.gov/fairhousing. You can file a complaint online.

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washingtonpost.com: Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (HUD)

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