Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday March 10th, 2015, 3:56pm

Five Chicago Housing Providers Sued Over Alleged Discrimination Against The Deaf

The disability advocacy group Access Living is suing five Chicago housing providers for allegedly violating of the federal Fair Housing Act by discriminating against people who are deaf.

Access Living, in partnership with Kirkland & Ellis LLP, filed the five housing complaints -- based on "fair housing tests" that paired deaf and non-disabled testers -- in federal court on Tuesday.

"It's hard enough for people with disabilities to find accessible, affordable housing," Access Living's President and CEO Marca Bristo said at a news conference to announce the complaint filings. "But when people with disabilities face discrimination by housing providers, the struggle to find housing becomes exponentially more difficult."

The complaints in question have been filed, Bristo said, "to address the specific wrongs committed by housing providers in these five cases and to raise awareness amongst housing providers across the city and state that they cannot and must not close the door on the housing search for people with disabilities."

Access Living, based in Chicago, conducts fair housing tests on an average of 20 housing providers annually. The five complaints, filed against housing providers on Chicago's North and South Sides, stem from fair housing tests conducted by Access Living in March 2013, based on apartment rental listings posted in the Chicago Reader, said Ken Walden, Access Living's fair housing manager. 

As described in the complaints, fair housing testing is "a controlled method for measuring and documenting variations in the quality, quantity and content of information and services offered or given to home seekers by housing providers and agents." The test results, the complaints add, "reveal whether a housing provider is treating people differently based on disability, in violation of fair housing laws."

As part of the tests, a non-disabled tester called the housing providers in question on a regular phone. A deaf tester called the same housing providers using the Internet Protocol Relay System, an internet-based system enabling those who are deaf or hard of hearing to communicate by telephone.

"No person, regardless of disability, should have a door slammed in their face," said Casey Fronk with Kirkland & Ellis. "But that is exactly what happened, figuratively speaking, in each of these five cases."

All five housing providers hit with the complaints allegedly discriminated against the deaf testers in a variety of ways including "by abruptly hanging up on the tester, refusing to provide information, not returning phone calls and/or providing different pricing information tha[n] was provided to the non-deaf tester," according to Access Living.

Defendants in the five complaints include:

1. Bill Prewitt d/b/a/ Best Rents;

2. BHC5820, LLC; and Wilmette Real Estate & Management Company;

3. The James C. Cheng Living Trust;

4. North Start Trust Company, Successor Trustee to MB Financial Bank, NA as Trustee under Trust Agreement, dated November 18, 2003, and known as Trust Number 3336; and M & B Domalex Holdings;

5. Gilbert Realty Company

In the case against Prewitt, owner of Best Rents, a small Bridgeport-based real estate company, the non-disabled tester called the firm and was allegedly told by Prewitt that the apartment in question, located at 3251 S. Wood St., was available. According to the lawsuit, the non-disabled tester was invited to a showing later that week. The deaf tester had a different experience when inquiring about the same apartment.

When the deaf tester reached Prewitt by phone to ask about the unit's availability, rent, and security deposit, the defendant briefly answered the questions before telling the deaf tester, "I'm in a meeting right now," the complaint reads. Prewitt allegedly told the deaf tester to view the information about the property online before he "immediately" hung up the phone.

The deaf tested followed up with an email to Best Rents later that day to ask about utilities for the unit, and left two more phone messages the following day at the company's office. Two days after initially inquiring about the unit, the defendant allegedly emailed the deaf tester: "There are no utilities included with the apartment. We don't have any apartments that are set up for a handicapped person so none of our apartments are handicapped safe. Thanks for your interest."

The complaint argues that the "defendant's actions discriminated in a manner that impacts many deaf and hard of hearing home seekers."

"Because communicating using IP Relay takes more time than a regular telephone call, rental agents and property owners many not adequately respond to IP Relay callers," the lawsuit reads, adding that, "Depriving deaf and hard of hearing persons of the ability to obtain information on rental properties over the phone limits the opportunities available to them."

When reached by phone Tuesday morning, Prewitt said he had not seen the complaint. He did note that Best Rents runs apartment ads containing a number that interested renters can call to hear an outgoing informational message with property details and showing times. Access Living's complaint said the deaf tester did reach "a voicemail message that described the details of the defendant's property listings" before calling the Best Rents office directly.

"I responded, and I talked to them, and I sent them an email," Prewitt said, referring to the deaf tester. "What else do they want?" 

Prewitt said he has rented to "handicapped" individuals, adding that he's been renting apartments for 30 years and has "never had any problem."

"I'm familiar with the laws," he added. "I try to follow the laws, and I try to be fair with everybody."

In the case against defendants BHC5820 LLC and Wilmette Real Estate & Management Co., the lawsuit alleges that the "defendants answered the non-disabled tester's question about the apartment, offered her a rent special and invited her to a showing of the apartment," located at 5280 N. Kenmore Ave. in the Edgewater neighborhood. The defendants "hung up on the deaf tester, quoted her higher fees and rent and told her to stop calling," the complaint adds.

As part of the complaints, Access Living is seeking awards of equitable relief, actual damages, an unspecified amount of punitive damages and attorney fees. Regarding equitable relief, Access Living is asking the court to order the defendants to participate in fair housing, disability awareness and telecommunications relay service training; market its properties to those who are deaf or hard of hearing; and create, maintain and publicize an email address "in all brochures, publications, posters and related educational and promotional materials."

A representative for Gilbert Realty Company was not immediately available for comment. The other defendants listed in the complaints could not be reached for comment.

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