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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

State uses sting operation to fine companies accused of veteran housing discrimination

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson (Associated Press)

Three Spokane-area rental companies illegally discriminated against veterans who use federal housing vouchers, according to the Washington state attorney general’s office.

The companies – KPS Realty, Domus Urbis and Country Homes Realty – are among 10 companies statewide targeted by an undercover sting operation that refused the use of Veterans Affairs Supporting Housing vouchers, part of a joint program between the U.S. departments of Housing & Urban Development and Veterans Affairs.

“I’m from a family of veterans, so it’s deeply concerning to me as an individual, and as the attorney general, that protections put in place for veterans in our community aren’t being honored,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Wednesday. “They’ve made a sacrifice and they’ve earned these protections.”

The illegal activity was uncovered by the Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit investigation, which began its work in 2016.

Ferguson said investigators from his office, in conjunction with the Spokane-based Northwest Fair Housing Alliance, randomly selected 50 landlords to target in a sting operation. Women posing as veterans contacted the rental agencies and asked if they could use VASH vouchers for rent.

Of those 50, 10 said no, leading to the enforcement action by the state.

Ferguson noted that veterans make up a large part of the homeless population. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 11 percent of homeless people are veterans. For comparison, about 7 percent of the general population have served in the military.

“We’ve wrestled with this for so long. Veterans are overrepresented in the homeless population. You can’t tell me this isn’t related to that problem,” Ferguson said. “That’s what makes this so maddening.”

Eight of the 10 that refused the vouchers entered into agreements with the state to end their discrimination and pay fines, including the three in Spokane. The other companies are Celski & Associates in Kennewick, Rowley Properties in Issaquah, TJ Cline in Walla Walla, Welcome Home Properties in Walla Walla and Yelm Creek Apartments in Yelm.

Country Homes paid a fine of $5,000. KPS and Domus Urbis agreed to pay $5,500.

Two other landlord entities identified by the investigation to discriminate against veterans – Utah-based Apartment Management Consultants and Colorado-based Mission Rock Residential – have refused to enter into an agreement with the state and end discrimination, according to the attorney general’s office.

Stan Wippert, who owns Country Homes Realty, said his company was unfairly punished.

He said the investigators emailed his company about the vouchers, and received a response from a “maintenance guy” at the company who wasn’t authorized to reply to such emails.

“The person that they communicated with no longer works with us,” Wippert said.

Wippert said his company manages about 400 units, and currently rents to 12 veterans, three of whom use VASH vouchers to pay rent.

“That didn’t make any difference to them,” Wippert said of the investigators. “The last thing we want to do is turn down a veteran. We bend over backwards for these folks. The AG just didn’t give a damn. Apparently they didn’t have anything better to do than trap people.”

A woman who answered the phone at Spokane Valley’s KPS Realty said the person who would comment on the issue was out the office on Wednesday.

Medical Lake-based Domus Urbis has no online presence, but according to documents from the attorney general’s office the company managed an apartment complex in the West Central neighborhood before the property was sold in March 2017.

Ferguson said his office began the investigation after hearing from fair housing advocates that veterans with the vouchers were being denied housing.

“We thought 50 was sufficient to get a sense of what was going on,” he said. “It is our hope that by doing this investigation and making this public, that entities around the state will clearly understand what the law is and what their obligations are to veterans.”