Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Fair Housing & Your Rights in the City of Falls Church

By Brenda Heffernan

Fifty years ago on April 11, 1968 — seven days after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — President Lyndon Johnson signed into law Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, more commonly known as the Fair Housing Act. As a result Federal and state fair housing laws prohibit discrimination against people who belong to one or more protected classes. Federal protected classes include race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability and familial status. Virginia’s Fair Housing law also includes elderliness as a protected class. Some localities (but not the City) include additional protected classes, such as gender identity, sexual orientation, source of income and ancestry. The City’s protected classes include only those recognized by the State.

The City of Falls Church Housing Commission, offers fair housing training to City Council members as well as landlords and local property managers. It also investigates and conciliates fair housing complaints. Individuals or entities, including community groups, can file fair housing complaints.
Fair housing laws apply to both the sale and rental of housing and direct providers of housing, such as landlords, property managers and real estate agents. Other entities such as banks, insurance companies and municipalities (councils and boards) also are subject to these laws. The Virginia Fair Housing Board receives approximately 180 complaints per year. The majority of complaints are based on racial and disability discrimination, but the State Board reports that familial status complaints are on the rise.

Discrimination based on familial status means the denial or restriction of housing to families with children under the age of 18. The law prohibits housing providers from imposing certain terms or conditions on families with children. For example, landlords may not locate families with children to a single portion of a complex or require families with children to reside on the ground floor of a building. The law also prohibits landlords from placing unreasonable restrictions on the total number of persons who may reside in a dwelling (or a bedroom), or limiting access to recreational services provided to other tenants.

In addition, it is unlawful for a municipality to adopt policies or deny housing proposals that exclude families with children. Even making statements or representations related to housing that indicates a preference or limitation based on familial status could give rise to a fair housing complaint. Earlier this year, the Village of Tinley Park, Illinois, agreed to pay $2.45 million to settle a fair housing lawsuit that alleged town officials’ actions to block an affordable housing development had the purpose and effect of discriminating against families with children. The settlement represents one of the largest monetary payments to an affordable housing provider for claims brought under the Fair Housing Act.

The City of Falls Church is not immune from Fair Housing complaints. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched an investigation in to whether the City violated fair housing laws by attempting to control school enrollment through a deal with a developer which would have required the developer to pay the City $15,000 a year for each schoolchild in the building beyond a limit of eight (referred to as the “cash-for-kids arrangement”). Minutes from a City Council meeting showed the Vice Mayor at the time expressing support for the project because “only 12 percent of the condominiums will contain three bedrooms, in an effort to further limit the chances that large families may be moving in.”

ther council members at the meeting echoed this sentiment. Facing an investigation by HUD, City Council members backed off from their support of efforts to limit large families. Ultimately, HUD’s investigation of Falls Church in 2004 resulted in a conciliation agreement whereby the City paid $120,000 to the Equal Rights Center and agreed to continue to provide and promote housing for families with children in all residential mixed-use projects, and to assess school impact contributions on a voluntary and non-discriminatory per unit basis. The City also agreed to conduct regular fair housing testing for discrimination based on familial status.

The one limited exception to the Fair Housing Act as it pertains to familial status is dwelling units that have been designated as “Housing for Older Persons.” Housing that meets the standards set forth in the Housing for Older Persons Act of 1995 (55 years of age or older) may operate as “senior” housing and impose restrictions or deny families with children under the age of 18.

If you believe you have seen or experienced discrimination in connection with the purchase or rental of housing, you may notify Falls Church Housing and Human Services by calling 703-248-5005 (TTY 711). You may also submit your complaint directly to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or the Virginia Fair Housing Office www.dpor.virginia.gov/FairHousing.