Fair Housing Center Settles Federal Lawsuit

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Cheryl Sharp and Michelle Dumas Keuler
Cheryl Sharp and Michelle Dumas Keuler

The past two years have been busy ones for lawyers representing tenants in housing discrimination matters in Connecticut. Most recently, an undercover operation that used volunteers to pose as would-be tenants helped plaintiffs to reach a settlement in a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Housing Authority of the Town of Winchester.

This approach, using so-called testers, will be used again in coming months, with a $227,000 grant to the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities being used to pay for the initiative.

"In employment discrimination cases, there are usually witnesses, but with housing discrimination, it's usually the tenants word against the landlord," said Cheryl Sharp, a housing lawyer with CHRO. "That's why testing has always been used with housing, to corroborate how a landlord behaves when renting a unit."

Discrimination claims against landlords have not increased in recent years, according to lawyers in the legal aid community, nor has the problem subsided, despite efforts by the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and other civil rights organizations.

"What we're dealing with is the persistence of segregation in Connecticut," said Greg Kirschner, the legal director for the Hartford-based nonprofit center.

On Nov. 14, a consent decree was issued in a federal lawsuit in which the center claimed the Winchester housing authority, which was in charge of approving Section 8 rental vouchers in 17 Litchfield County towns, prevented hundreds of low-income African-American and Hispanic renters from applying for apartments. The authority had enacted a rule that only residents of the 17 mostly white towns could apply for Section 8 housing in the region. The plaintiffs claimed that residency rule was discriminatory.

The consent decree calls for the housing authority to pay $350,000 to the plaintiffs and to eventually relinquish its role as administrator of the Section 8 program in Litchfield County. Lawyers who worked on behalf of the plaintiffs were pleased with the settlement.

"These white communities used a very simple means to maintain the white character of their communities," John Relman of Relman, Dane & Colfax in Washington, D.C., said in a published statement. He was cocounsel in the plaintiff's lawsuit.

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Earlier this month, the CHRO, a public agency created to investigate claims of discrimination in housing and employment, announced it will relaunch its testing program early next year, using the U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant. The agency used to have a testing program, but it was discontinued about a decade ago due to funding challenges.

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