Spokane is touted as a grand place to raise families, but an undercover investigation reveals widespread discrimination against potential renters with children.
That’s the assertion of a class-action lawsuit filed in Eastern Washington’s U.S. District Court.
The suit claims Spokane’s biggest clearinghouse for rental units - which serves thousands of landlords and tenants each year - routinely discriminates against people with kids.
At the core of the complaint is a question asked of landlords by Computerized, The Rental Company: Will they accept children?
The computer entry is similar to the designation concerning pets. N stands for no; Y for yes; E for negotiable.
Spokane Legal Services Center and the Perkins Coie law firm assert this business practice violates the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on familial status.
“It closes out a wide range of housing opportunities for families with children,” said Jim Bamberger, center director.
The suit estimates 50 to 100 families may participate in the class-action.
John Cornett, president of Computerized, said he has never heard complaints about the company’s practice before Bamberger’s poverty law center launched its investigation last summer.
“I’ve never been told that I can’t do that or shouldn’t do that,” he said. “If it is illegal, we will certainly change it.”
Cornett said his company, which sells access to the county’s biggest computer database on available rentals, helps people with children find quality housing all the time.
“We’re not doing any discrimination here. We’re providing them with information.”
Cornett wouldn’t comment on the tactics Spokane Legal Services employed to gather evidence.
On 22 occasions last summer, the curious landlords and tenants calling on the rental office were imposters.
Court affidavits detail the contacts these “testers” had with the rental office. Prospective tenants were asked about their children, while prospective landlords were asked if they would allow them.
One tester posing as a landlord said a company employee asked “if I accept kids or pets.”
Another tester said she was told some landlords don’t want “kids running around.”
Bamberger says the rental office shouldn’t be allowed to ask tenants how many children they have, or ask landlords if they will allow kids.
The only legitimate question along these lines, he maintains, is how many people will be living in the unit?
Another tester reported that he was told certain areas - in fact, all of central Spokane - should be avoided because they are unsafe “ghetto” areas where there are frequent “drive-bys.”
Cornett said he wouldn’t tolerate such comments from his employees.
“Under no circumstance would the rental company refer to certain areas as problem areas,” he said.
The lawsuit seeks damages and attorney fees for housing discrimination victims since 1989.
A court-appointed examiner is collecting computerized records from the rental company that will help determine the suit and its eligible participants.
Bamberger said the case sprouted from a client’s complaint that she was being discriminated against in the housing market.
“It seemed there was a pattern of conduct harmful for families with children,” he said.
He also said there was nothing unusual about the center’s investigative tactics.
“It’s done all the time,” he said.
The summer issue of Market Watch, a Spokane newsletter for landlords and property managers, warned about such stings.
“You’ll never know until it’s too late,” the newsletter warned in its cover article called “Watch Out For Testers.”
“The prospective tenant you are talking to could be a fair housing tester. Supposedly their job is to find out if landlords are violating fair housing laws. They have been known to go farther. What you have to be careful of is entrapment.”