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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

They were excited to move to Boise. Now they’re suing their HOA for discrimination.

Somi and Jenna Ekwealor are suing the Charter Pointe Neighborhood Association and allege it discriminated against them for flying a Black Lives Matter flag.   (Sarah A. Miller/Idaho Statesman)
By Nick Rosenberger Idaho Statesman

For Somi Ekwealor, moving to Idaho was a chance to return to his roots. Born in Nampa and raised in the Midwest, he spent his childhood traveling from Indiana to his grandparents’ farm off Garrity Boulevard.

Moving to Southwest Boise in January 2021 was an opportunity to start a family with his wife, Jenna. They looked forward to becoming a part of the community and the place he remembered so well – with its mountains, rivers and family friends.

They made friends with their new neighbors early on and had cookout block parties. They found out in March 2021 that they were having a baby.

“It was really exciting,” Jenna Ekwealor said.

But in the months that followed, their excitement crumbled. Somi Ekwealor, who is Black, and Jenna Ekwealor, who is multi-ethnic white and Latina, say their homeowners association, Charter Pointe, accused them of violating an association rule because they hung a Black Lives Matter flag by their front door.

The Ekwealors allege that no such rule existed, but that afterward, the association then wrote a new rule aimed at them.

The Ekwealors sued the homeowners association, a board member and the HOA president, along with a community manager. They also sued the HOA management company, Association Management Inc., and the subdivision’s developer, Hubble Homes. They alleged discrimination.

Hubble Homes controlled the HOA at the time the Ekwealors were asked to retire their flag. Jace Richards, general counsel for Hubble Homes, said the case is under review and is still in the early stages.

“This is merely a complaint and nothing in the complaint has been proven,” Richards said in a phone interview with the Idaho Statesman. “Just because Mr. and Mrs. Ekwealor said it, doesn’t mean it’s true.”

The Charter Pointe Neighborhood Association had no comment and requested that all communications go through its lawyer, Patrick Galloway, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Other flags stayed up, couple says

When the Ekwealors moved to their home in the Charter Pointe subdivision, located west of Maple Grove Road and south of Lake Hazel Road near Desert Sage Elementary School, they were on the edge of the development. Farms filled the surrounding land and began turning into houses as they settled in.

Excited to own a home and to hang flags for holidays and sports games, the Ekwealors bought an American flag from Costco and put it up right after moving in. In June 2021, the couple hung their Black Lives Matter flag to show support and solidarity with people of color. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 had drawn national attention to police brutality and boosted support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

The association emailed the couple a notice in July 2021 asking them to remove the flag, but the complaint alleges that the association didn’t ask others to take down their political flags.

“That notice really dampened things for us,” Somi Ekwealor said. “We felt like we were being discriminated against, because all around the neighborhood there are all kinds of flags.”

Somi Ekwealor said he found 10 properties with flags or signs after receiving the notice, including sports flags, Thin Blue Line flags and Trump flags. He found 17 flags or signs on later canvasses of the neighborhood.

The only neighbor he found who had received a request to retire a flag was a Black neighbor who had also flown a Black Lives Matter flag. That neighbor moved out of state.

“She was sick of it,” Somi Ekwealor said. “She told us she felt like she was being harassed.”

Unequal enforcement leads to lawsuit

Mark Wetzel, a community manager for Association Management Inc., emailed the Ekwealors saying the flag violated HOA guidelines and an Idaho state statute, the lawsuit alleges.

The statute, Idaho Code 55-115, says an HOA may remove a political sign without liability if the sign is placed on common ground, threatens public health or safety, violates an applicable law or ordinance, is accompanied by sound or music, or has other materials attached.

The Ekwealors said they tried to understand the law and the HOA rules – reading through the guidelines, asking questions, attending association meetings and talking with neighbors. But the Ekwealors said they could find nothing indicating the flag violated either the statute or the guidelines.

“It was just strange,” Jenna Ekwealor said.

When they asked for clarification, the association explained that it was developing a new rule, the complaint alleges. When the rule was implemented that September, it banned all flags except sports flags, the American flag, the Idaho flag, POW/MIA flags and official and replica flags of the U.S. armed forces.

According to the complaint, the HOA intended the new policy to “limit the possibility of harassment or even an altercation … in hopes to promote a harmonious environment.”

But after implementing the rule, Somi Ekwealor said 20 flags or signs remained in the neighborhood. He said it seemed as though the HOA failed to enforce the rule on anyone else.

The Ekwealors believe the new rule, like the original notice, was to prevent them from displaying their Black Lives Matter flag.

In October 2021, after receiving feedback from homeowners, the HOA sent an email apologizing and rescinding the flag policy. It had been in effect one month.

“While the intent of the policy was in good spirit and was intended to be neutral and non-offensive, it is recognized that the policy distributed may not allow homeowners to display specific flags that hold significant meaning to them,” the email said.

In the two years since Charter Pointe canned the rule, the Ekwealors have sought and received help in their legal battle from the Intermountain Fair Housing Council and the Idaho Human Rights Commission in an effort to prevent something similar from happening again.

The Intermountain Fair Housing Council is a nonprofit focused on quelling discrimination in housing. It sent the HOA educational letters and submitted a fair-housing administrative complaint for the Ekwealors to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Idaho Human Rights Commission investigates discrimination complaints in employment, housing, education and public accommodations, according to its website. The commission sent educational letters to the HOA, Hubble Homes and Association Management Inc. on behalf of the Ekwealors.

Jenna Ekwealor said they sued, in part, because of the neighbor who moved away who felt harassed.

“We’re hoping that by pushing back … others become aware of this wrongdoing, this violation of our rights,” Somi Ekwealor said.

Residents feel lasting effects

But the fight has left them with lasting scars. After receiving the HOA notice, the Ekwealors began feeling unwelcome.

“It was uncomfortable, and I got pretty scared,” Jenna Ekwealor said. “I started to feel like we were very alone.”

Somi Ekwealor became anxious about interacting with others. Every time a car passed while he was bicycling, he said, he would have a thought about an aggressive driver veering to the side. He stopped bicycling and bought an indoor biking machine.

They began suspecting discrimination in daily incidents, such as when a driver swerved around them while in a crosswalk.

“Someone could say, ‘Well, you don’t know if that person was racist.’ No, we have no idea,” Jenna Ekwealor said. “But that is the problem when you experience discrimination. … It messes with your sense of stability and you are left questioning all the time if something is a coincidence or hate or an accident or discrimination.”

“You feel it. It’s physical,” Jenna Ekwealor said.

So the Ekwealors have decided to leave Idaho, though they have not yet put their house up for sale.

“All the excitement that we had moving to Idaho, building a community here, growing our family,” Somi Ekwealor said, “… a wet towel was thrown on top of that.”