A national watchdog group is filing complaints against three Charleston-area apartment complexes for alleged discrimination against prospective deaf and hard-of-hearing tenants. Rental agents at the apartment complexes are accused of denying equal access to information about rentals, discouraging potential tenants from applying to rent, and repeatedly hanging up on callers, among other things.
The National Fair Housing Alliance announced Thursday that it was filing eight complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development against the owners of apartment complexes in Little Rock, Ark.; Sacramento, Calif.; Atlanta and Savannah, Ga.; Long Beach, Miss.; Charleston, North Charleston, and Lexington, S.C.; and Austin, Texas. The complaints allege violations of the fair-housing section of the Civil Rights Act, and NFHA President Shanna Smith says she intends to work with apartment owners to resolve the issues.
"We're actually starting with the HUD administrative process in order to give apartment owners an opportunity to get this resolved and get housing open for people who are deaf or hard of hearing," Smith says. "Now, if we run into blocks from these owners, then we will talk to our counsel about allowing the HUD process to go forward but filing lawsuits as well."
Locally, the apartment complexes that have been accused of discrimination are the Berkshires at Ashley River (1850 Ashley Crossing Lane, Charleston), Pine Crest Apartment Homes (1920 McMillan Ave., North Charleston), and Parsonage Point Apartments (2362 Parsonage Road, Charleston). Asked for comment on the accusations, managers at all three apartment complexes referred the City Paper to corporate offices, two of which did not return our calls. Melissa Farish, a manager for the Berkshires at Ashley River, said she had not heard of the accusations before Thursday afternoon. "We can't really speak to anything that we're not aware of," Farish said.
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Pine Crest Apartment Homes are owned by VTT Management, Inc., a Massachusetts company with rental properties in states including Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Ohio. Director of Corporate Communications Maura Shea gave the following statement in response to the HUD complaint: "VTT is looking into these allegations, and as a company we are very committed to all of our tenants and prospective tenants as far as giving them the best customer service available without exception."
From May through October 2013, the NFHA conducted a nationwide investigation with paired testers calling apartment offices and inquiring about rentals. In each pair, one tester had normal hearing and a second tester was deaf or hard of hearing. The NFHA says the two callers would give comparable details about themselves, and in some cases the deaf testers would be better-qualified to rent. Deaf testers made their calls through an IP Relay service, which allows them to communicate using a computer keyboard and an operator who relays messages back and forth with the call recipient.
One of the deaf testers from Washington D.C., who spoke in a teleconference Thursday and was only identified as Kristen, described rude responses from some rental agents. One sighed constantly and engaged in side conversations while on the phone with her, and some were "not interested in getting my business," she said. "Once I mention that I have a service dog, I lose them at that point often."
The HUD complaints, which were filed Thursday and are available on the NFHA website, describe the investigations at the three Charleston-area apartments.
At Pine Crest Apartment Homes, according to the complaint, a hearing tester called to inquire about two-bedroom units and was invited to come in for a tour and fill out an application. A deaf tester called with the same inquiry and was placed on hold for 10 minutes, called back, and was redirected to a voicemail message. On a second test, a deaf tester called three separate times and was disconnected. On two of the calls, she reported that the call ended immediately after she announced that she was deaf.
At Parsonage Point Apartments, the deaf tester reported that he "was initially hung up on after revealing that he was [deaf] and using IP Relay to find out about apartment availability," according to the complaint. On a second call, the deaf tester was informed that he would have to pay a $100 administrative fee that was never mentioned to the hearing tester. In a subsequent test, a hearing tester was encouraged to come by for a tour, while the deaf tester was not invited to visit.
In one test at the Berkshires at Ashley River, a deaf tester allegedly made an inquiry about a rental but never received a follow-up call or e-mail. A similarly qualified hearing tester, meanwhile, inquired about apartments that were outside of her stated price range and received three e-mails and a voicemail as follow-up.
NFHA President Shanna Smith claimed in a teleconference that the organization scrutinized the Charleston area because, like many of the other focus areas of the study, Charleston does not have a local, private fair housing center acting as a watchdog. That's not the case, however.
The Charleston Trident Urban League Fair Housing Center is a private nonprofit organization with funding from HUD that works on fair housing issues in the tri-county area. Otha Meadows, president of the Charleston Trident Urban League, says his organization takes a proactive approach to educating landlords and property owners. While the Urban League does not enforce fair housing laws, it can refer cases to HUD.
"If we're actually looking for discrimination, we can find it every day of the week, unfortunately," Meadows says. "What do we need to do to get out in front of that and prevent acts of discrimination before they even occur? Our emphasis becomes the education outreach part of that."
For assistance with housing discrimination cases, call Charleston Trident Urban League Fair Housing Hotline at (843) 579-7578.
A previous version of this story stated that Charleston does not have a fair housing watchdog organization. We regret the error.