Deaf renters face discrimination in apartment searches
Terrell Brittain signs the word home outside his house in Kingwood earlier this month. In the past, Brittain has faced housing discrimination for being deaf.
By Jayme Fraser
January 27, 2014 1:09pm
It got to the point where Terrell Brittain would begin every call about an apartment listing with the threat: "Don't hang up or I will file a federal complaint."
Discrimination is an all-too-common part of housing searches for Brittain and other deaf people, according to a recent report from the National Fair Housing Alliance that details systemic illegal treatment of deaf people seeking rentals at dozens of apartment complexes nationwide.
"I felt dehumanized. It wasn't fair," said Brittain, a professor of American Sign Language Interpretation at the University of Houston, who was hung up on when he searched for an apartment.
About 1 in 4 of the 117 large rental firms investigated in 2013 displayed differential treatment toward deaf and hearing apartment seekers with matching qualifications. Those 30 companies that appeared to discriminate own more than 2,000 apartment complexes in 57 cities.
About 40 percent of the rental firms suspected of repeated discrimination hung up on deaf callers using an operator-relay service and 33 percent quoted higher application fees. The majority of property managers also provided less information about amenities, said fewer units were available than they had told hearing callers minutes earlier, and were less likely to follow up by phone or email, according to the alliance report.
"The results of this investigation would seem to indicate that there is a problem with poor training," stated Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf. "The extent of discrimination found in this investigation is disturbing."
The national housing alliance ultimately filed nine federal complaints against rental companies, including one in Austin. Eleven local partners, including the Greater Houston Fair Housing Coalition, filed dozens more with regional offices of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Four Houston complexes were cited for repeatedly hanging up on deaf callers using an operator-assisted relay service and for not providing them with the same information as hearing callers.
"Many of us notice that we have to fight for communication," Brittain said. "We don't want to be patronized or pitied. Just proceed as you would with any other client."
'I arrived here first'
Discrimination can extend beyond hang ups and persist even after signing a lease.
"The wait time – that's what I noticed compared to other hearing clients who came in," Brittain said. When searching for apartments in college, he found that he would be asked to wait while agents helped other clients who had just walked in.
"I wanted equal access," he said. "I arrived here first. They should wait."
Florence Danois, who wore hearing aids until domestic violence made her completely deaf, said the rental agents at her old apartment quickly processed letters from her doctors that outlined the accommodations she would need to live there as guaranteed by federal disability and housing law. One was simple: All maintenance must be scheduled in advance since she could not hear someone knocking on her door.
It was ignored, according to documents filed in a Fort Bend County court and tied to a state discrimination complaint.
Property managers gave a pest control contractor a key to Danois' apartment and told him to use it if she did not answer when he knocked. She did not, so the worker entered her home and sprayed the kitchen.
Danois, 69, who has acute asthma, was in the next room preparing to shower when her lungs and eyes began to burn.
After complaining to management about the incident that required hospital treatment, apartment staff stopped picking up her trash, denied her doctors' accommodation requests during a lease renewal – even though the same ones had been in place for years – and served her with an eviction notice for disorderly behavior.
"I was thrown between a rock and no place," Danois said.
One judge blocked the eviction and another upheld the decision after the complex appealed.
The four Houston complexes with complaints filed against them this month ranged from the Quay Point Apartments near Hobby Airport, which offers a 550 square-foot, one-bedroom unit for $490 a month, to Venue Museum District near Hermann Park, which offers a 763-square-foot, one-bedroom unit for $1,700, according to their websites. The others were Carrington at Barker Cypress and Cabo San Lucas Apartments on Nathaniel Street.
Managers or owners at three of the Houston properties said the complaints did not sound like something their employees would do, noting they must attend annual training on fair housing rules and rights. Nova Property Management, who owns Cabo San Lucas Apartments, did not return multiple calls or an email requesting comment.
"We're a very high end property so we take care of our people," said Jeannine Boswell, Vice President of Asset Management for Grayco Partners, which runs Venue Museum District. "That this happened to three different people is beyond my comprehension. But testers try to put you up to something, too."
Shanna Smith, president of the national fair housing group, defended the study and subsequent complaints.
"People called and either there were apartments available and were told truthfully or not. Either the rent rate was told truthfully or not," she said. "These are not complicated investigations."
Grayco Partners said in an email that the staff at Venue Museum District earned an average score of 98 percent on tests taken in August as part of an online course about fair housing written by Grace Hill, a Georgia company that did not return a request for comment.
Angelina Hernandez, manager at Quay Point, said her company, Rabuf 18 LLC, also uses Grace Hill, but in her five years taking the tests she did not remember the training ever covering people who were deaf or hard of hearing.
Training falls short
Daniel Bustamante, executive director of the Greater Houston Fair Housing Coalition, said not all training adequately reviews reasonable accommodations for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
"It is very common for people to think they have it covered and not actually have it covered," he said.
In May 2013, a Quay Point rental agent answered an 11:25 a.m. call, but hung up after a telephone relay operator had explained she was speaking for a deaf person interested in an apartment, according to a transcript of the call created when the operator and deaf person type back-and-forth that was quoted in the complaint.
The deaf woman immediately dialed again.
"Ma'am, I have two residents in front of me. I am not accepting this call," the rental agent said before hanging up again.
A hearing tester called a few minutes later and the rental agent shared details on two units, the deposit, fees, application requirements and a move-in special.
Two minutes after that call ended, the deaf woman called again.
"I don't have time," the agent said then hung up.
She dialed again.
"Thank you," was all she heard before the dial tone.
Of the 30 apartment rental companies investigated for systemic discrimination by the National Fair Housing Alliance and its partners:
1 86 percent gave more information about available apartments and amenities to the hearing callers
1 76 percent told hearing callers they had more available units than they told deaf or hard of hearing callers
1 70 percent quoted higher rental rates when talking to deaf or hard of hearing callers
Sources: National Fair Housing Alliance's "Are you listening now?" report