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Legal Discrimination? Housing Group Pushes to Change State Law

Housing Opportunities Made Equal is campaigning to remove exemptions that allow discrimination.

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Housing Opportunities Made Equal is campaigning to remove exemptions in the 1972 Virginia Fair Housing Act that allow discrimination based on race, gender or creed so long as a property owner owns three or fewer rental properties.

“We're just trying to protect all the protected classes from all kinds of discrimination,” says Helen O'Beirne, director of the Richmond-based organization's Center for Housing Leadership, which is renewing its push in the upcoming General Assembly session.

According to statistics compiled by the housing group, smaller landlords — those who own just a few rental houses — make up the majority of the rental market. Their numbers have grown by half in the past few years. O'Beirne estimates that 150,000 single-family-rental-property owners are exempt from Virginia's Fair Housing Act.

Because they make up such a large segment of the rental market, “even if the incidence of discrimination is low, it has the potential to be affecting a lot of people,” O'Beirne says. And yet, “when I talk to [property owners] they say, ‘Why do you want to burden me with more regulation?'”

John Moeser, a senior fellow with University of Richmond's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and an expert on fair housing issues, calls the continued existence of state-sanctioned discrimination on housing issues “strange.”

Federal fair housing laws and civil rights laws prevent this sort of discrimination, but often the burden of pressing a complaint is a weight that many victims are unable to bear — and the state exemption means landlords get a free pass.

“It put the onus on the citizen,” Moeser says of federal protections. “It meant the citizen had to find a lawyer, you had to pay for the lawyer. It was a complicated process.”

Removing the exemption to the state law would alleviate that, creating an administrative rather than legal route to righting wrongs, O'Beirne says. Administrative hearings are far more streamlined and are less costly to alleged victims.

“To those smaller investors I say show me why you should be allowed to discriminate and the guy with four houses shouldn't?” O'Beirne says. “Show me why that makes good policy sense in the 21st century?”

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