If Nick Mirro had his way, protected classes under the Fair Housing Act would be done away with.
Mirro, an investigator and trainer with the Delaware Division of Human Relations office in Georgetown, offered a training course at an April 10 forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Sussex County.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale, lease or rental of housing and credit applications against selected protected classes: race or color; national origin; religion; sex; familial status, including children under the age of 18; and disability.
In addition, state law protects creed, marital status, age and sexual orientation.
While most people fall into a protected class, gaps continue to exist. Mirro said people are frequently denied housing based on how they look; appearance is not a protected class. He said excluding people from protected status is itself a form of discrimination. “I'd like to see legislation more generalized to include every individual from a discriminatory act,” he said.
In addition, people recovering from drug addiction and alcoholism are protected, but those recovering from gambling or sex disorders are not, he said.
Mirro said fair housing discrimination cases are usually triggered by a written complaint, which is followed by a thorough investigation by the state, which also conducts a review for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Mediation is the ultimate goal in the process, but investigators can take cases to Superior Court. Cases can also be filed in federal court. Fines range from $10,000 to $50,000 or more.
Investigations must be complete with 100 days followed by 30 days of additional fact finding, which includes a face-to-face meeting with the landlord or property manager and the complainant with the aim of working out a no-fault settlement.
The state and federal Fair Housing Act covers most housing. In some cases, the act exempts owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units, single-family homes, housing intended for people aged 55 and over and housing operated by organizations and private clubs.
Under the law, it's illegal to refuse to rent or sell housing to those in protected classes. It's also illegal to change terms of a sale or rental – like charging a higher security deposit if a renter has children – and to deny housing to families with children under the age of 18.
It's also illegal to refuse housing to anyone based on a disability. That list includes people with AIDS, those getting treatment for drug addiction and alcoholism and those with mobility, hearing and vision impairments and chronic mental illness.
Mirro pointed out that landlords and property managers are well within their rights to deny housing to people with bad credit history, drug users, those with sex disorders, those who have been convicted of violent crimes or anyone who presents a direct threat to the health and safety of others.
Under the law, tenants cannot be denied reasonable modifications to a dwelling to compensate for a disability, such as construction of a handicap ramp. Also under the law, a landlord can require a tenant to cover or share the cost of a modification. In addition, when a tenant leaves, the property must be restored to its original condition.
Examples of reasonable accommodation include providing an assigned parking space to someone with mobility problems or relaxing a no pets policy for someone who requires a companion animal, which could include animals such as cats, birds, pot-bellied pigs and even miniature horses.
Mirro said there is a separate law to protect people who file complaints from retaliation. “We will be in their world everyday to monitor the agreement,” Mirro said. “Don't be concerned about making a complaint because of fear of retaliation because we will know what is going on.”
HUD officials monitor the agreements
Mirro said some complaints still confound him. He said one of the biggest settlements in Sussex County had roots in race discrimination. “The woman looked white, but she was biracial,” he said. “The landlord said he didn't rent to whites because they complained too much. This kind of stuff is still happening.”
Mirro lives in Lewes and has been a member of the Lewes Fire Department for the past nine years.
For more information, phone 302-856-5331 or go to statehumanrelations.delaware.gov.