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Fair Housing Bill Seeks to Eliminate Discrimination

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A proposal aimed at closing loopholes in the state's fair housing law may not make rent after coming up short in the eyes of real estate and small business lobbyists.

The proposed legislation seeks to close an exemption in the law that allows someone with fewer than four rental units to discriminate based on race, sex or other protected classifications without triggering state rules that prohibit such discrimination.

The bill, sponsored by Delegate Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, is championed by Richmond-based fair-housing group Housing Opportunities Made Equal, known by the acronym HOME.

Opposition to the bill doesn't fall along ideological lines. Rather, those against it say the proposed protections might instead ensnare all manner of unintended — and unintentional — violators.

Loupassi acknowledges that possibility, but asks: “How can we have some protections — how can we afford protections for people trying to rent — but not adversely or unintentionally harm [a property owner] who is unaware of the law?”

He says he's working on language to make the bill less ojectionable. “The intent for us is good, [but] I've got to find a way to make sure we don't have unintendend consequences,” Loupassi says. “That's a delicate balance.”

Laura Lafayette represents the Richmond Association of Realtors, one of a handful of groups pushing against the bill.

“This is more complicated than just saying you oppose discrimination,” says Lafayette, whose organization frequently works with HOME. She refers to instances in which a homeowner seeking to rent a house with a pool might refuse to rent to someone with small children with the intent to protect the children.

“Individuals who have one home to rent, and absolutely no intention to discriminate,” she says, could run afoul of the proposed law “because they don't know the intricacies of the fair housing law.”

Lafayette says some concerns over this fairly narrow group within the rental market may well diminish as the glut of houses for sale become rentals in the difficult housing market.

HOME's Helen O'Beirne says language limitations aren't an excuse for not protecting people belonging to groups frequently victimized by discrimination. Owners with fewer than four properties represent the fastest-growing segment of the rental market.

“HOME is not painting the picture that all housing providers are purposely discriminating against people seeking housing,” O'Beirne says, but “our recent research shows that housing discrimination in one form or another is alive and well.”

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