Chicago – On March 10, Access Living and the law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP filed Federal Complaints with the United States District court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. The complaints are against five housing providers on Chicago’s north and south side for alleged discrimination against people who are Deaf. The complaints claim that members of the Deaf Community were denied rental options because of their disability, violating their rights under the Federal Fair Housing Act.
On March 10, Access Living and Kirkland & Ellis LLP hosted a news conference to announce filing of five fair housing complaints.
The complaints were based upon fair housing tests that paired two people. Fair housing testing is a controlled method for measuring and documenting variations in the quality, quantity, and content of information and services offered or given to home seekers by housing providers and agents. The testers were matched on all characteristics except that one was non-disabled and one was Deaf. Deaf testers called housing providers using the Internet Protocol Relay System (IP Relay), an internet-based system that allows people who are Deaf or hard of hearing to communicate by telephone. Non-disabled testers called the housing provider using a standard telephone.
In each of the five complaints, the housing provider discriminated against the disabled tester by abruptly hanging up on the tester, refusing to provide information, not returning phone calls, and/or providing different pricing information than was provided to the non-Deaf tester. In one example, when the Deaf tester called, the Defendant cut off the conversation and hung up on the tester. After the tester tried to reach Defendant again, the Defendant sent an email that stated that none of his apartments “are set up for a handicapped person so none of them are handicapped safe.” The non-disabled tester was told that the apartment was available and was invited to a showing later that week.
“Everyone, regardless of disability, deserves equal access to housing opportunities,” said Casey Fronk of Kirkland & Ellis. “These complaints reveal that housing providers denied housing to people solely because they are Deaf or hard of hearing. Each one illustrates a violation of the Fair Housing Act.”
In another case, the disabled tester was quoted an amount of the rent and security deposit, but then the defendant hung up on the tester. The Deaf tester waited 10 minutes and called back, whereupon the Defendant told her to “stop calling.” The non-disabled tester called 25 minutes later. The non-disabled tester was informed of a rent reduction special for the first month, was told no security deposit was required, and was offered a tour of the apartment.
“Housing is a key link to independence for everyone, both people with and without disabilities,” said Jamie Wichman, Access Living’s Fair Housing Testing Coordinator. “For people with disabilities, discrimination chokes off opportunities to learn about, attain, and maintain housing in communities of their choosing.”
The tests conducted by Access Living were not the first to reveal discrimination against Deaf callers. During 2011 and 2012, the Equal Rights Center conducted a fair housing study that consisted of 100 telephone tests in the Washington, D.C. area. Each test in the study conducted by the Equal Rights Center used one tester who was not disabled and one Deaf tester who used IP Relay. During the course of the tests, the Deaf testers experienced inferior treatment 45% of the time. In 2013, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) conducted a similar study. During the first phase of testing, about one in four housing providers exhibited some form of differential treatment. In the second round of testing, 40% of housing providers hung up on Deaf or hard of hearing individuals at least once during their interaction, and in certain instances, housing providers hung up multiple times after the Deaf tester attempted to call back.
The defendants in the complaints are:
1. Bill Prewitt d/b/a/ Best Rents (Case 15-2088);
2. BHC5820, LLC; and Wilmette Real Estate & Management Company (Case 15-2087);
3. The James C. Cheng Living Trust (Case 15-2091);
4. (a) North Star Trust Company, Successor Trustee to MB Financial Bank, NA as Trustee under Trust Agreement, dated November 18, 2003, and known as Trust Number 3336; and (b) M & B Domalex Holdings (Case 15-2085 ; and
5. Gilbert Realty Company (Case 15-2090)
In addition to actual damages, punitive damages and attorney fees, the complaints filed by Access Living and Kirkland & Ellis ask the court to (a) order the Defendants to participate in fair housing training and disability awareness training, and (b) award other equitable relief.