The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) has announced that it has negotiated an agreement between the National Fair Housing Alliance, the Austin Tenants’ Council, the National Association of the Deaf, and Bell Partners, a Greensboro, NC-based apartment owner and operator that controls more than 64,000 homes in 15 states, settling allegations that the company’s properties in Texas and Georgia denied housing to deaf persons.
The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful to refuse to rent, make housing unavailable or discriminate in the terms, conditions, or privileges associated with the rental of a dwelling on the basis of disability. This includes refusing to rent to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing.
The three advocacy organizations alleged that Bell Partners discriminated against rental applicants who were deaf or hard of hearing based on a series of fair housing tests that the groups performed in Savannah, Georgia, and Austin, Texas, in 2013. Testers posing as rental applicants who are deaf or hard of hearing called to inquire about apartments using the Internet Protocol (IP) Relay system, which allows deaf or hard of hearing individuals to communicate with hearing persons via phone using computer text. Multiple tests were conducted over a period of several months. Agents of Bell Partners allegedly hung up on testers who used the IP Relay system or sent their calls directly to voice mail; in contrast, agents accepted calls from testers not using the IP Relay system. When agents spoke with testers using the IP Relay system, they allegedly quoted higher rental prices and failed to offer the same specials and amenities they offered to testers who did not use the IP Relay system. Agents also allegedly failed to follow up with testers who used the IP Relay system.
“Testing exposes housing discrimination that might otherwise go undetected,” said Dave Ziaya, HUD’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “The Fair Housing Act protects all potential renters, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing. HUD will continue to enforce the law to ensure that no one is denied housing because they have a disability."
Under the terms of the agreements, Bell Partners will pay $175,000 to the National Fair Housing Alliance, including $25,000 in attorneys’ fees. Bell Partners will provide fair housing training to both newly-hired and current employees. The training will cover the use of assistive technology for the deaf and hard of hearing, including telecommunications relay services. Additionally, Bell Partners will adopt a written policy addressing equal access to housing opportunities for applicants with disabilities, including deaf and hard of hearing individuals, which outlines the correct handling of telecommunications relay calls and other types of communications with deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Bell Partners will communicate the policy to all agents and managers. Bell Partners will pay the National Association of the Deaf $15,000 for consulting services in the development of these policies.
The Bell Partners agreement follows another settlement HUD reached on behalf of deaf and hard of hearing individuals earlier this year. In February, HUD reached an agreement with Mercy House Living Centers in Santa Ana, CA, settling allegations that the center’s employees discriminated against two deaf and hard of hearing Section 8 applicants when they refused a request for an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. Under that agreement, Mercy House Living Centers agreed to pay the applicants $17,500 to cover the amount of rent they paid during the seven months that they were unable to participate in the Shelter+Care Program, provide ASL interpreters and other accommodations when necessary to communicate with persons with disabilities, and provide fair housing training for its employees.