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Apartment Owners Settle Child Discrimination Suit

By Jorge Casuso

September 10 – Two local building owners accused of turning down a prospective tenant because she had a child living with her reached a settlement with the City Attorney's Office, City officials announced Thursday.

May and Alan Wong, owners of the apartment building at 1048 19th Street in Santa Monica, agreed to pay $500 to the prospective tenant, Donna Thomas, and $500 to the City to cover the costs of the investigation.

The Wongs -- who were found to strictly limit their one-bedroom units to single occupants -- must also attend a management training course certified by the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles and abide by a two-year moratorium against future discrimination or face double penalties.

"Many people don't know that it's illegal to impose this kind of occupancy limit," said Deputy City Attorney Eda Suh. "Limiting one-bedroom units to single occupants is discriminatory and illegal.

In Thomas’ case, Suh said, “you have a systematic denial of rental to people that have more than one person” living in the unit.

Limiting on the number of occupants in a rental unit constitutes discrimination if the effect is to ban families with children, which is prohibited by federal, state and local laws, Suh said.

The courts have held that a policy of limiting one-bedroom units to one occupant is "suspect" because it has a disparate impact on single parents with children.

Thomas filed the complaint with the City after responding to an internet ad for a one-bedroom apartment and set up an appointment to see the unit with owner May Wong, City officials said.

During that telephone call, Wong asked Thomas how many people would live in the unit, and she answered that she and her seven-year old daughter would live there, Suh said.

Wong then said she did not think the apartment would work for two people, and hung up, Suh said. Wong never showed up for the scheduled appointment, and refused to return Thomas's follow-up calls.

Thomas claimed that she then had a friend call Wong and say that he was interested in the one-bedroom rental for himself and his child, who would be living with him half of the year, according to Suh.

When Wong hesitated, the friend said that he would see if the child's mother could take the child for the whole year, Suh said. Wong encouraged him to do so.

Later the friend called Wong and told her that he would have to have his child live in the unit half of the year, City officials said. Wong promised to call him back but never did.

After receiving Thomas’ complaint, the City Attorney's Office launched an investigation that included using two undercover "testers" from the Los Angeles Housing Rights Center and conducting a survey of the Wongs' existing tenants, Suh said.

While many landlords rent one-bedroom units to single occupants, they seldom tell prospective tenants they are being turned down because they have a child or another person living with them, officials and housing experts said.

“How do we enforce it when a landlord is thinking something but they don’t say it?” Suh said. “If she hadn’t given a clue to this woman, it probably wouldn’t have been detected.”

Rosario Perry, a local landlord attorney, said renting two, and even three-bedroom units to a single occupant was prevalent before a new state law allowed landlords to charge market rates when a tenant voluntarily vacates a rent-controlled unit or is evicted for non-payment of rent.

“Before, they were stuck with the low rents,” Perry said. “They wanted the guy from New York that flew in once a month. Now, with high rents, they’ll rent to anybody who’d pay the money.”

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