The same housing advocates who slapped Spokane landlords with discrimination lawsuits are now swinging at the region’s real estate agents.
The Northwest Fair Housing Alliance has filed 17 complaints against Realtors, claiming that advertising pitches such as “Valley Retirement Home” or “Empty Nester’s Delight” discriminate against families with children.
That interpretation outrages agents who argue the ads simply help target potential buyers.
“We should have the right to advertise like anyone else,” said Peter Enkema, a Tomlinson Black agent who got tagged for the “Empty Nester’s Delight” pitch.
“What does the Big and Tall Shop mean to you?” Enkema said. “Chuck E Cheese’s doesn’t go out and market itself to the elderly.”
Eastern Washington Rep. George Nethercutt is startled by the fair housing complaints too, and is examining the growing controversy.
For the first time, the Spokanebased housing alliance filed complaints last month against real estate agents with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The federal agency reviewed the concerns, then sent formal complaints to agents describing the alleged violations.
Agents were advised of the potential consequences - usually fines in the hundreds of dollars to be paid to the housing alliance.
Realtors panicked. Their ads have never been questioned before. “I had people calling me and saying ‘Help!”’ said Rob Higgins, executive vice president of the Spokane Association of Realtors.
Some Spokane agents and landlords suspect the complaints and potential lawsuits are part of a campaign to raise cash for the housing alliance.
The taxpayer-funded, non-profit organization contracts with the federal government to protect people’s housing rights. It also has authority to file complaints and collect fines.
“This has nothing to do with discrimination and everything to do with (the housing alliance’s) continued funding,” said Bill Koshman, of B&D; Realty Inc.
The housing alliance, run from modest offices at Howard and Riverside, is led by Florrie Brassier, a strident defender of the nation’s Fair Housing Act.
On her office bulletin board is this slogan: “IF YOU’RE NOT OUTRAGED YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION.”
Since arriving in Spokane less than two years ago, Brassier has crusaded to educate the housing industry and to monitor discrimination.
“This is totally unspoiled territory,” she said of the region. “Nobody has been here doing this.”
From her vantage, Spokane is a city where families with kids are routinely and illegally denied housing. Much of the discrimination stems from ignorance, said Brassier, the former administer of the state of Virginia’s fair housing program.
“There’s been a dearth of information out here,” she said.
Last summer, Brassier sent “testers” into rental agencies and apartment complexes as part of a sting to expose landlords who wouldn’t allow children in their units.
The investigation resulted in a joint lawsuit with the U.S. Justice Department against three landlords accused of violating the portion of the Fair Housing Act that protects families with children from discrimination.
In a separate case, another accused landlord settled a discrimination complaint for $50,000 - $21,000 of which went to the housing alliance - rather than fight the allegation in court.
Last month, Brassier’s staff turned its sights on what they see as illegal advertising. One complaint was about a rental ad that for three straight weeks stated “no kids,” Brassier said.
Brassier said she prefers to educate rather than litigate, but also said Spokane’s problems are so widespread she doesn’t have the time to pass out warnings.
“We’re not going to just sit back and try to educate while this goes on,” she said. “I was certainly not trying to attack people.”
Enkema, of Tomlinson Black, said HUD told him he could get out of his complaint and avoid a lawsuit if he agreed to give the housing alliance $300 and attended training classes provided by the group.
“I feel it is an example of Big Brother government telling us how to live and what color shoes to wear,” he said. “When I look at all the things the government could be spending its money on and they’re coming after Realtors … If they’re trying to get us on their team and educate us, this is really an in-your-face tactic. This is the kind of thing the Congress should get behind and say, ‘Oops. This is wrong.”’
Nethercutt is listening.
“‘Empty nester’ is a far cry from an outright discriminatory act,” Nethercutt said. “My gut impression is that it’s a real stretch of the regulations.”
Nethercutt said he requested copies of the law to better assess the issue.
Good idea, said Brassier. She points to the fine print of the Fair Housing Act that calls it a violation to publish an advertisement “that indicates any … discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status …”
“Empty nester is not questionable. It is clearly a violation,” said Brassier.
Brassier said she filed the complaints to get the issue out in the public, not to cause a ruckus. “We’re asking people to take this seriously.”
She also said she is open to negotiation with the agents on how best to settle the complaints.
The money she asks agents for, she said, is to pay for needed training programs and also for the staff resources diverted to policing fair housing violations.
The housing alliance has an annual budget of $265,000, of which $36,000 pays Brassier’s salary.
Brassier said she wants HUD involved in the debate, and said she intends to work on the issue with Higgins at the Spokane Realtors Association.
Higgins said he has found Brassier constructive at times, but he says it with the smile of a man who is trying hard to be diplomatic.
He also said her recent barrage of complaints was a “left hook out of nowhere. Quite frankly I was amazed.”
Higgins said he wants to reach some agreements so agents don’t have to be gun-shy. “I think we’re all getting tied up in knots on semantics. We need to blow the whistle, step back and figure this out. Life is already complicated enough.”
Brassier smiles nervously as she describes her working relationship with Higgins. “I know he could kill me with his bare hands for stirring up this bee’s nest.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SOMETIMES, MEMO SAYS, A TERM IS JUST A TERM A federal official sent out a memo last year to help fair housing regulators weed out frivolous discrimination complaints. A “walk-in closet” doesn’t discriminate against handicapped people, explained Roberta Achtenberg, assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity. A “great view” home doesn’t discriminate against blind people, she wrote. Nor does “master bedroom” constitute race or sex discrimination. The Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association wrote a widely-used guide to words to avoid in housing ads. They include: non-smokers, quiet tenant, newlyweds, responsible, empty nesters. The association cautioned against using these words: handyman’s dream, fisherman’s retreat, mother-in-law’s apartment and synagogue. -Jim Lynch