Rose Montgomery has to make sure the million-dollar mansion where she lives with her husband and four sons looks like a model home every day.
The Montgomerys made the grade to be part of the Show Homes Program, which puts perfect families in posh pads while owners have them up for sale. It's hard to believe that earlier this year, a landlord black-balled the Montgomery brood because of their four boys.
At the first rental interview, a screener said the property owner was looking for a family. She praised the Montgomery boys' seamless manners. But when the family went to meet their new landlord, they got a frosty reception.
"He looked at me and my husband and the boys and said, 'I can tell you right now this is not going to work. I didn't know you had four kids,'" Rose Montgomery recounts in a fair housing complaint seeking damages.
Handing back their $2,000 check, the property owner informed the Montgomerys he wasn't about to let those boys demolish his house. And he wasn't going to be hauling over at all hours of the night to shut down their rough-housing.
The Montgomerys are among a flood of families who lost their homes in the foreclosure crisis, only to wash up on a rental landscape blemished with a new kind of intolerance-anti-child discrimination.
They face a terrain of blatantly biased Internet ads full of prejudiced phrases like "No teenagers" and "Adults only."
"Family status discrimination happens all the time," says Allison Bethel, executive director at the John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Clinic in Chicago. "We still see a fair number based on race, but family discrimination is right up there at the top."
Unfair renting practices against families with children are the most common violation of fair housing laws, according to the National Fair Housing Alliance. Overall, the NFHA logged 5,300 complaints in 2008, up about 66 percent over the past three years. Kid bigotry is the leading complaint at HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, where over the past two years nearly 1,500 would-be renters sought help because of anti-child landlords.
Internet postings, like these found on Chicago Craigslist, may be subtle, but they are every bit as unscrupulous:
"Luxury apartment, huge, limited to four adults."
"Perfect for couples or roommates."
"2 working adults to share."
"Discrimination happens more often with a smile and a handshake," says Bernie Kleina, executive director of HOPE Fair Housing Center. In business since 1970, HOPE is the oldest fair housing agency in the Chicago area.
"If the landlord seems very nice, the family doesn't even expect they've been discriminated against," Kleina says. "It's up to us to investigate."
That's the problem.
Courts across the country have ruled anti-kid ads a violation of the Fair Housing Act since 1988, and hold newspapers liable for printing them. But Internet postings aren't held to such strict standards. In a landmark Chicago case, the Chicago Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights in 2008 took on Craigslist. But the Illinois Seventh Circuit Court ruled that Web sites are not publishers and aren't responsible for screening out illegal housing ads. Instead, renters and fair housing agencies have to chase down and file complaints against individual landlords who post discriminatory advertisements.
Trouble is, it's just not practical to enforce anti-discrimination laws ad-by-ad. It's a tremendous drain on resources, fair housing advocates say. Groups like HOPE spend time and money chasing down devious landlords while their unfair ads stay online.
While watchdogs flag the anti-child ad, track down who posted it, find an agency to help them, file a written complaint, bide their time for a government investigation, negotiate a settlement with the landlord and educate him about the regulations, the families and children the laws were drafted to protect wait to find a roof over their heads for months on end.
Crafty property owners sift out children by sizing the number of
occupants per bedroom lower than the HUD guideline of two. Outright
refusals to rent are commonly masked in a rejection of Section 8
Housing vouchers, Bethel says.
Condominium associations toy with household heads in a myriad of foxy family-unfriendly ploys.
They may limit children to the first floor or slap strict guidelines on using recreational facilities. The "No Ball Playing" sign is a familiar landmark in townhome communities across the Chicago suburbs.
"Family-child discrimination may be a case of they do get to move in, but once they get there, they'll have a miserable time," Bethel says.
Just ask Kizzie Latimer and Leslie Williams, who live in Sunset Lake Apartments in the southwest suburb of Justice. Ball-playing bans and rec center restrictions are kid stuff compared to the decree Sunset Lake imposed on some 600 families who live there.
A couple of days before school started, the property manager put out a memo that blocked the six school buses from driving into the complex of about 13 buildings.
Each morning, Latimer and Williams had to walk their children-and those tendered to them by desperate working parents forced to trust their kids to neighbors they didn't even know-to a central bus stop on a busy industrial thoroughfare more than half a mile away.
There, more than 250 youngsters from kindergarten through high school thronged in a chaotic scramble to get the right kid on the right bus heading to the right school. Childless renters got a piece of the grief, too, as morning traffic clogged around the mass bus stop.
"It was bedlam," says Latimer, who had daughters in ninth, seventh and fourth grade.
When Latimer and Williams, who has two sons, started circulating petitions to protest the bus blockade, they woke up to notices of tenancy termination the next day.
"It was bad enough worrying every morning about the sanity and safety of getting our kids to school," Williams says. "Now we had to worry about if we were going to have a place to live at all."
After a couple of weeks, the Argo Community High School District and the Indian Springs School District took legal action against Sunset Lake, claiming the rule "posed serious risks of irreparable harm to the public by severely threatening the health, safety and welfare of both district students and passerby motorists," according to the complaint. The judge handed down a temporary order to let the buses in, but there still is no final decision in the case.
"This is an example of a case where a landlord is denying tenants' fundamental right to public school," Bethel says. "It gives us a better understanding of what family-status discrimination is and the far reaches of its effects."
Respecting family housing codes isn't just a legal landmine for landlords. When unscrupulous Internet posters or heavy-handed housing associations impose unreasonable policies, kids get hurt.
Even though the Montgomery family ultimately landed their rental dream home, the earlier landlord's demeaning rejection wounded her sons' self-image, Rose Montgomery says.
In the Justice bus issue, Leslie Williams found her youngest boy packing up his toys to take to school for safekeeping. Teachers in her oldest boy's class called to tell her he was having emotional meltdowns. The bus barricade so ignited passions that fights broke out between backers of managers and tenants. Police intervened.
The city of Chicago prevents property owners from refusing to take Section 8 housing vouchers, and fair housing advocates are prodding other cities, counties and states to adopt the same protection. The best way to stop discriminatory online housing ads, now the primary place where people look for housing, is to hold posting sites liable for unfair ads just like newspapers and other publishers, the NFHA says.
For happy endings, landlords can learn to live with the laws. In one case, handled by Access Living, a condo board told a child who used a wheelchair he had to use the service entrance. When the parents said no to the back door treatment, management slapped them with a fine.
"Once the board was convinced their actions were in violation of the Fair Housing Act's prohibitions on discrimination … they did apologize and changed the rules and regulations," says Mary Jo Noriega, fair housing testing coordinator at the agency.
Maybe the final fix for family housing discrimination lies within the teaching tool Columbus Montgomery crafted for his boys when they asked him, "Is this the way it's going to be out in our world, Dad?"
"It shows us not to judge a book by its cover," he told them. "Find out who the person is before you shut them out."
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
See more of Robyn's stories here.