Landlords put to test

Helen E. Grybosky has had her world turned upside down over the last five years. She used to rent three units in a Conneaut house on U.S. Route 20, but that was before the fair housing testers came, before the lawsuit was filed and before she was left with a bill of more than $100,000.

On April 4, she went to the empty house to turn down the gas.

“You have to keep the gas on or the walls will crack,” the 81-year-old North Kingsville woman said.

She used to rely on the house to supplement her Social Security income. Now she has it posted for sale.

“I’m not going to put it for rent anymore. With the testers, why bother?”

Her ordeal began in February 2008 with a $100 deposit she asked of a fair housing tester posing as an interested tenant with a therapy dog. The testers were sent by the Fair Housing Resource Center in Painesville to scope out violations of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which protects renters from being denied housing based on race, national origin, religion, gender, familial status or disability.

According to fair housing regulations, an emotional support animal (such as a therapy dog) cannot be prohibited even when a landlord specifies no pets are allowed. Because a doctor can prescribe the use of an animal for emotional support, much like they can medication, the animals are protected under disability discrimination laws. When Grybosky asked the tester for proof of the condition, they had no documentation.

In a second investigation by testers, Grybosky refused to rent an upstairs apartment to a family with children, offering instead a bottom floor unit. Fair housing laws prohibit discrimination based on “familial status,” meaning families cannot be turned away from housing because of the children.

Grybosky said she offered the downstairs apartment because the upstairs apartment only had one bedroom and she said the law requires a separate bedroom for the child.

With records of these instances and finding what they deemed to be fair housing discrimination, the Fair Housing Resource Center, who had been sending the testers to Grybosky, sent her a notice informing her that her actions warranted either a civil action in Ashtabula court or an administrative hearing process.

During the hearing process Grybosky was given the choice to comply with requirements made by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission or go to trial. The OCRC required she pay the FHRC $6,500, attend three hours of fair housing training, establish non-discrimination policies in her rental agreements, and place a quarter-page ad in a local newspaper acknowledging her actions and promoting the FHRC.

Instead, Grybosky hired lawyer Tarin Hale to represent her against the OCRC and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. During the trial, the testimonies of about six testers were drawn upon, said Grybosky. There were only a few who she said she recognized. Some may have called her and not physically come to see the rental units, she said.

In October 2012, the judge found Grybosky guilty of housing discrimination and ordered her to pay for both side’s attorney fees and $22,000 in damages.

Last month, the costs of attorney fees was determined to be $80,000.

  • “You are now a professional”

Patricia Kidd – executive director of the FHRC, which covers Lake, Geauga and Ashtabula counties – said the group has been using testing for 12 years to uncover discrimination in cases like Grybosky’s.

Kidd said they use extensive means of educating and informing the community in hopes of making it “self-defeating” in terms of housing discrimination. Most of the cases that the organization handles are resolved to some degree, she said.

“We’re a nonprofit. The goal is for us not to exist,” Kidd said.

When landlords complain that they have the right to rent to whoever they want to, Kidd said she tells them they certainly do with the exception of the protected classes.

“You have to know the rules and regulations, regardless of what business you are running,” Kidd said. “You are now a professional.”

Grybosky is determined to see her case settled and to get the word out about her view on fair housing testers.

“They might not be down there (Trumbull County) yet, but they will be,” she said.

  • “Get a pulse”

Grybosky is correct.

Though there are several agencies that handle fair housing complaints in Trumbull, none has used testers in the past. That is about to change, according to Michael Keys, who heads up the Warren City Fair Housing Commission.

Trumbull County has not had a history of fair housing complaints – there have been 36 in the last nine years and 15 were determined to be without cause.

Keys said the city plans to start a testing program by this summer under the direction of Paragon Residential Services in Warren. The company will act as a liaison for the city, like the FHRC in Grybosky’s case. They will train and supply testers as the city requests.

Keys said the testing was the recommendation of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that funds and oversees fair housing agencies.

“HUD recommends that we not just react but be proactive,” Keys said. “We’re not doing testing just so we can jump out with the police and say, ‘Aha, we’re testing!'”

Rather, Keys said he hopes testing will help the commission to “get a pulse” on housing discrimination since few complaints are being received. He said the low numbers may be due in part to people being embarrassed to complain or due to affordable housing options in the city.

When problems occur outside of Warren in Trumbull County, they are most likely handled by Julie Green.

Grants coordinator of the Trumbull County Planning Commission, Green works with Community Legal Aid to handle fair housing issues in Trumbull County townships and villages.

She said her commission has contracted with Community Legal Aid to address discrimination complaints. Community Legal Aid assists in documenting the issue and investigating it to determine whether it would be appropriate to file with the OCRC.

With only four complaints in 2012, much of Green’s and Community Legal Aid’s focus falls on education. Informational meetings are held about five times a year for real estate agents, housing collaborations and other stakeholders in the housing industry.

“I think that our efforts are successful in outreach,” Green said.

  • “Where the rubber meets the road”

To help get the word out, Green and a group of about 15 people with ties to fair housing agencies in the Mahoning Valley, met March 26 at the Trumbull Metropolitan Housing Authority to listen to Donald Eager discuss starting up fair housing testing programs.

“Testing is where the rubber meets the road. It is how we prove discrimination. There’s no other way,” said Eager, of Donald B. Eager & Associates, which provides training sessions for testers.

At the meeting Eager addressed the testing process, how to train testers, who makes a good tester and the stigma of undercover testing.

He said testing often gets a bad rap as being flawed, unnecessary and a form of entrapment for unassuming landlords. However, he also said that testing has been upheld in the courts as an acceptable way of proving discrimination. He gave a brief overview of what determines discrimination.

First, the housing candidate must be a member of one of the protected classes: race and gender. Second, the unit must be available for rent or purchase. Third, the applicant must be qualified for the unit. In other words, they must be able to afford the unit or be able to be approved for the loans needed to pay for it. Finally, the unit must remain available after the denial has occurred.

  • “You should know the federal laws”

When there is a breach of fair housing law, Francis Smith, Enforcement Branch Chief of Columbus’ HUD Office, said landlords are given the option to settle with the agency or nonprofit that uncovered the incident.

“They have guidelines if they find a violation,” Smith said.

If there is reasonable cause to believe discrimination took place, the agency will charge the respondent with violating the law. From here the respondent is given the opportunity to go through an administrative hearing before a HUD Administrative Law Judge. This judge can award a maximum civil penalty of $11,000 per violation for a first offense in addition to actual damages and attorney fees.

Smith said he has heard of damages ranging anywhere from $50 to $20,000. Often the money is returned to the fair housing nonprofit to be used in their operating budget. If the agency is a government entity though the damages are turned in to the state treasury, with no promise of return to the local government.

Smith said the government is simply upholding the law and those in violation are required to pay for it.

He said a common misconception is that the fair housing laws should only apply to people who are “cheating,” not to people who are seen as everyday landlords.

“Obviously if you’re in any business you should know the federal laws in those situations,” he said.

  • “I’m doing this for justice”

Meanwhile Helen Grybosky continues her battle to end what she deems entrapment. She expressed feeling cornered in the situation with no option of deciding who could rent out her house.

“It’s a scam,” said Grybosky, “They send these so called testers out – they’re discriminating against the landlords.”

To that end Grybosky and Hale filed a civil case against the OCRC and the testers.

“She is under an extreme amount of stress,” Hale said. “She lost her life savings and they have been threatening to take her house from the beginning.”

However, the civil case against the OCRC remains on hold until the original case is finished – which requires the OCRC’s approval of the $80,000 amount that Grybosky is being asked to pay for their legal services.

“They are driving the landlords out of business,” Grybosky said, “I’m doing this for justice for all the landlords.”

Hale said he plans on appealing the case and that he questions the constitutionality of it.

“A person has to risk everything just to get to court on the issue. … I think we’re going to win and that this testing is going to end one way or another,” Hale said.