Monday, May 24, 2010

Shady rental practices surface

Fair housing advocates report illegal treatment of victims By Janell Ross • THE TENNESSEAN • May 24, 2010 Tammy Hardesty thought the worst was behind her. She'd lost her Antioch apartment and most of her belongings to the flood, but the complex manager said she and her children could move into an undamaged two-bedroom unit right away. She was able to salvage some possessions, and the church replaced others. And then she was summoned to the apartment complex office. The managers gave her three options: Break her existing lease and pay back $820 in reduced rent she'd been given upfront, sign a new lease and pay $760 for the new apartment each month, or sign a cheaper lease that lasted until January 2012 "I had to go for that one, because it was the one that didn't involve any money," Hardesty said. The May 2 flood damaged an unknown number of apartments and, at the same time, made renters out of thousands of onetime homeowners. But after the murky water receded, a number of discriminatory, unfair and illegal rental practices were exposed, area fair housing advocates said. They know, because they've been receiving more calls. If any apartment is damaged to the point that it is not habitable, a tenant legally can terminate her lease and have her deposit and a portion of that month's rent returned, said Tracey McCartney, executive director of the Tennessee Fair Housing Council. A flood isn't supposed to be an opportunity to extend leases. The managers of Hardesty's apartment complex did not respond to a request for comment. Some actions are illegal While some landlords have been generous and helpful during this Middle Tennessee disaster, more stories like Hardesty's are emerging. • One flood victim was told her teething child may be a crier and not a good fit with the complex's thin walls. Age-based redirection is illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act. • Some flood victims lived in apartments with water-soaked carpet and walls for days or weeks without landlords fixing the problems. Maintaining a habitable and safe apartment is part of a landlord's responsibility in most rental agreements. • A 77-year-old diabetic flood victim was told the dog who serves as her medical alert system could not move into her new apartment. But if a tenant has a doctor's note or a service dog certification, the law requires apartment communities to accept the animal. "The flood really has laid bare a lot of tensions that have been there for a long time," McCartney said. "… We want people to be aware what their rights and their responsibilities really are." Many Tennessee apartment communities are posting their openings on a website — — originally established after Hurricane Katrina scattered thousands of victims around the country. Some are waiving deposits and application fees for flood victims, said Nancy Morris, a board member and past president of the Greater Nashville Apartment Association. One thing that apartment managers and owners can't do is change their usual credit score requirements, because the Fair Housing Act requires property owners to treat all applicants the same way. The association purchased $1,000 in $50 gift cards for flood victims who leased units managed or owned by its 700 members, Morris said. The association and its national arm are also coordinating an Angel Tree campaign online for people who want to help apartment dwellers with specific needs. The Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands has set up a toll-free number for flood victims — renters and homeowners — at 1-888-395-9297. Staff lawyers and volunteers have taken a number of questions related to landlords' responsibilities to tenants and tenants' responsibilities to landlords, said Lucinda Smith, the Nashville office's managing attorney. "Anytime that someone is looking to rent, it is important that they know their rights and their responsibilities," Smith said. "That's obviously more important than ever in Nashville. That and … don't forget the renter's insurance. Because if something happens in that apartment, you will be responsible for damage to your belongings."

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