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
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.
[Photo by Jason Geil] Columbus and Rose
Montgomery and their son, Moses.
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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,"
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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.
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