Fifty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) continues to demonstrate a strong commitment to Fair Housing, both through the support of private enforcement and through its own public enforcement. HUD recently announced that 80 non-profit organizations committed to fair housing will receive almost $23 million in federal funds through HUD’s Private Enforcement Initiative. According to HUD Secretary Ben Carson, these grants represent an “investment to support [HUD’s] fair housing partners and protect families from discrimination” by providing money to engage in testing and private enforcement of the act.
HUD also continues aggressive public enforcement of the Fair Housing Act. For instance, HUD recently filed a housing discrimination charge against a New Jersey condominium association for allegedly refusing to grant a request for reasonable accommodations in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The complaint is based, in part, on a condominium association’s adverse action against a resident regarding a service animal. Specifically, in 2013 the complainant, on behalf of herself and her disabled mother, filed a complaint with HUD after Hudson Harbor Condominium Association, Inc. fined the complainant $100 for walking her mother’s service dog in a common area.
In 2012, Hudson Harbor waived the association’s “no pet” policy for the complainant’s mother, who relied on a 75-pound beagle, Australian sheepdog, and terrier mix to assist her in walking, alert her to individuals at her door, and for emotional support. At the time of the waiver, Hudson Harbor told the complainant’s mother that she would need to comply with rules applying to pets that were “grandfathered” in before the association banned them in 2009. This policy required all pets to be kept in crates or carriers while in common areas.
The complainant’s daughter ignored the rule and walked the dog in the condominium’s common areas, which prompted a letter by Hudson Harbor demanding that the dog be carried in a crate. Hudson Harbor also warned that each violation would incur a fine. As a result of this letter, the complainant and her mother began entering and exiting the building through a service door that resulted in a longer walk and allegedly exacerbated the complainant’s mother’s health problems.
The complainant’s lawyer contacted Hudson Harbor and explained that her mother’s condition prohibited her from carrying the dog in a crate. Hudson Harbor denied the request for an accommodation because the complainant, who was not apparently disabled, “is the only person that has been observed walking the dog.” The complainant had primary responsibility for walking her mother’s dog, so she continued to violate Hudson Harbor’s rule. As a result, in October 2013, Hudson Harbor fined her $100. Shortly thereafter, the complainant filed a verified complaint with HUD, which ultimately led to HUD’s housing discrimination charge.
This complaint, as well as the approximately $23 million in grant money that HUD is giving to fair housing organizations, is a reminder that HUD remains committed to aggressive enforcement of the Fair Housing Act. Additionally, HUD continues to interpret the Fair Housing Act broadly. Fair Housing issues arise in a range of industries – as illustrated recently by HUD’s involvement in private litigation involving social media advertising. Consequently, financial service providers, landlords, common interest community associations, and any other entity involved in the provision of housing should develop policies and robust training to ensure compliance. That being said, the recent HUD charge against Hudson Harbor is a reminder that often the best way to avoid turning a molehill into a mountain of legal bills, fines and damages is good judgment, sensitivity to each tenant’s particular situation, and good outside legal counsel.