HUD Charges New York Co-op with Housing Discrimination

By Erika Schnitzer, Associate EditorWashington, D.C.–The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is charging The Townsend House Corp., a New York-based apartment building operator, with housing discrimination.According to HUD, The Townsend House Corp. refused to allow a family to obtain an animal to provide emotional support for their autistic child. Under the Fair Housing Act, which was modified in 1988, property managers or owners must make reasonable accommodations for the disabled.“We concluded that the co-op had, in fact, violated the law and we, as an agency, filed the equivalent of a lawsuit before an administrative law judge,” Bryan Greene, deputy assistant secretary for enforcement and program, HUD, tells MHN.The child’s parents requested an exception to their co-op’s no-pet policy prior to obtaining an emotional support animal. The co-op agreed to allow the family to have a dog, but established a number of terms by which they must abide, including obtaining insurance providing liability coverage of $1M and imposing a weight limit of 10 pounds.“By imposing these specific requirements, [the co-op] effectively denied [the family] the opportunity to have the dog because they proposed terms that were so onerous the family believed it would be too difficult to get the dog,” says Greene.If the judge finds that discrimination has occurred, he may award the family damages for actual loss, emotional distress and civil damages, in addition to a civil penalty of up to $16,000.With discrimination lawsuits on the rise, building owners and operators need to make themselves aware of fair housing concerns, says Michael Skojec, a partner in the litigation department and a member of the construction and housing groups at Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll. “I think the industry needs to be aware that these kinds of claims related to handicap discrimination or familial status discrimination are being more aggressively pursued,” he tells MHN.Once the industry becomes aware of what is happening, Skoject asserts that owners and operators should take preventive steps such as ensuring they have a policy in place before accommodation requests are made to ensure consistency. In addition, he explains that he would encourage his clients to “get lawyers involved when the issues come up. Some believe they can handle issues at the property management level and take aggressive positions that may get them in trouble.”