CHICAGO (CN) – Landlords who refuse to rent apartments to anyone but Northwestern students will face a civil trial for housing discrimination, a federal judge ruled.
Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs filed suit after receiving complaints from an Evanston resident and then launching an undercover investigation.
The Chicagoland fair-housing organization claimed that its investigation showed that Bernsen Management and its proprietors, Barry and Barbara Bernsen, systematically refused to rent housing to anyone but Northwestern University Students, in violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act.
The first of three undercover tests involved a purported Northwestern student, whom the Bernsens offered an apartment without incident. Barbara told the student that the property was “pretty quiet.”
But the second tester, who presented herself as the wife of an incoming Northwestern student, got a different message. Barry told her that “the building was not suitable for families and that if she had a family she would be unhappy there.” The third tester, claiming to be the aforementioned Northwestern spouse, got the same response when he contacted the Bernsens.
Faced with the fair-housing lawsuit accusing them of discriminating on the basis of family and student status, the Bernsens and their company moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim and lack of subject matter jurisdictions.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Coleman rejected both prongs of the motion, noting that “a district court applies the ‘ordinary listener’ standard when determining whether a statement ‘indicates’ a preference in violation of the Fair Housing Act.”
Barry’s alleged statements to prospective tenants “may lead an ordinary listener to believe that defendants prefer not to rent apartments to people with families,” Coleman wrote.
Similar claims have succeeded in the 10th Circuit, and Interfaith may have a case, according to the eight-page decision.
The Bernsens also attacked Interfaith’s reliance on anonymous testers, saying this rendered the claim overly vague, but the court found the tests specific enough to comply with federal pleading standards.
Moreover, though Interfaith was not personally harmed by the practice, the court noted that “a fair housing organization has standing to sue under the Fair Housing Act if it alleges the minima of injury required by Article III.”
Here, the Bernsens’ actions allegedly “caused plaintiff to expend time and money performing an investigation into the discriminatory practice.”
“Deflection of an organization’s time and money away from activities such as counseling constitutes a sufficient injury to confer standing on that agency,” Coleman wrote.
Since Barry allegedly made the offending statements to the second and third testers, however, Interfaith cannot sue Barbara in her personal capacity.