Bill would give more protection to landlords in fair housing lawsuits

A piece of state legislation backed by the National Real Estate Investors Association would give landlords more protection from pricey housing discrimination suits, but civil rights groups claim Ohio Senate Bill 349 would make it harder for unfair housing practicing to be punished and stamped out.

The bill, introduced this summer by Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, would reduce damages for which a property owner can be held liable, make attorney fees discretionary and even exempt some small landlords from fair housing laws.

The bill would likely be a huge blow to tenants who are already discouraged from pursuing their rights because of the cost and determination needed to do so, said Trish Landsittel, who is still embroiled in a fair housing lawsuit after leaving her Marietta rental property in June.

“It’s challenging,” said Landsittel of trying to pursue a discrimination suit. “The person is acting as their own legal counsel. It’s a tremendous amount of work emotionally, and you’re on a steep learning curve.”

Property owners typically have an advantage in that they can hand the case over to an attorney.

But steep attorney fees for landlords is one of the things the bill is trying to target. According to the Columbus Dispatch, Seitz and other proponents of the bill are citing a discrimination case in Lake County that exemplifies how exorbitant that cases can become.

Elderly landlord Helen Grybosky and her son spent $40,000 in legal fees resolving a complaint lobbied by Fair Housing Resource Center testers that found they had violated fair housing practices involving a woman with children and a man with a service dog.

Rebecca McClean, executive director of the Real Estate Investors Association, called the practice of undercover testers and resulting lawsuits an “extortion tactic.”

At least one local landlord said he has had no problems with the current law.

“We’ve been in the business since 1972,” said Adrian Van Dyk, owner of Van Dyk Rentals. “We just don’t discriminate.”

In more than 40 years of business, Van Dyk has never been the subject of a fair housing complaint, he said. Most of following the law is common sense, he said. However, no one entity reaches out to property owners to make sure they are current on the law.

“You have to watch your own back. There really isn’t anybody that informs you of those things,” he said.

G. Michael Payton, director of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, has argued the bill would cost the commission more than $1 million in Housing and Urban Development funding annually because it brings the state out of line with federal fair housing guidelines.

“HUD has strongly suggested that SB 349 would take Ohio’s fair housing laws out of the realm of being “substantially equivalent” to the federal (Fair Housing Act),” wrote Payton Friday in a letter to Seitz highlighting his issues with the law.

It is unclear if the law would also have an impact on federal funds that are used locally. For example, Washington-Morgan Community Action annually receives around $1.3 million in federal funding for its Housing Voucher Choice Program. That and other grants the agency receives all have fair housing components tied into them, said David Brightbill, executive director of community action.

Landsittel, who says her eviction from her Marietta home was based on her continual insistence on legally required upgrades, said if anything, fair housing laws should move in the other direction, toward more protection for tenants.

She is already working on a plan to introduce state legislation that would see Ohio joining 22 other states where landlords need good cause to evict a tenant.

Fighting for one’s tenant rights is taxing, she added.

“They’re counting on that, on wearing you down. Unless you are very determined, they will,” she said.