RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A civil rights organization is suing a city landlord claiming she discriminated against potential renters on numerous occasions.
8News took action–digging into the 18 page complaint filed by Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia.
HOME works to uphold and enforce fair housing laws. In 2019 HOME took in 279 fair housing complaints from across the state. Of those about a third were against people with disabilities, but the most common complaint category was race.
The organization claims Teresa Vetter made discriminatory comments against families with children and those with disabilities, which is a direct violation of state and federal housing laws. After a nearly two year investigation, HOME filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on Broad Street, against Vetter.
“We filed a complaint based on discrimination and discriminatory statements,” said Heather Crislip, President and CEO of HOME.
Crislip says she and her team launched an investigation in December of 2018 after receiving a tip about Vetter from a potential renter.
“We take every complaint seriously,” Crislip told 8News. “We turned to a method that HOME has been using for 50 years and that’s fair housing testing.”
Fair housing testing is similar to mystery shopping. HOME uses volunteers and part-time employees to pose as potential renters wearing recording devices to captures what’s going on behind closed doors.
Crislip says “testing” is a powerful tool and that in Virginia it is legal to record without two-party consent.
We don’t get complaints as brazen as what we heard from Ms. Vetter,”Heather Crislip, President and CEO of HOME
According to the complaint, Vetter is a private landlord who owns several rental properties on Chamberlayne Avenue; specifically duplexes at 4900, 4908, and 4231 Chamberlayne Avenue. A total of eight testers visited the homes over the nearly two-year time frame and each time Vetter showed preference to those who were not disabled or did not have young children.
8News obtained the alleged recordings of Vetter where she’s heard saying “children make terrible tenants.”
“Children make terrible tenants. The law doesn’t allow me to discriminate against people on account of children, but I can tell you I would rather have a Great Dane for a tenant than a three-year-old,” Vetter said in the recording.
In another, Vetter says to a tester, “I get calls all the time from people who get a disability check. Not a darn thing wrong with them. I’ll ask ‘Are you in a wheelchair? Can you do stairs?’ ‘Oh, it’s not that kind of disability.’ ‘What is it?’ ‘I’m depressed.’ ‘Really, well so am I, now that I know what my tax dollars are paying for again.’”
According to the Fair Housing Act and CDC Guidelines, mental illness is considered a disability.
The complaint also lists other statements Vetter allegedly made such as, “I don’t rent to people who are on welfare” and that she will not rent a second-floor apartment to someone in a wheelchair because “I don’t want you ripping up my stairs”.
If testers did have children or a disability Vetter would encourage them not to apply or increase the rent price, according to the complaint filed.
“Well these are really clear violations of the law,” said Crislip. “I don’t think in my time at HOME I’ve ever heard statements that blatant.”
According to federal and state fair housing laws, landlords can not discriminate based on familial status or disability; they are two protected classes.
8News attempted to get Vetter’s response to the claims by visiting her home, however she did not answer the door. We also called numerous times and left several voicemails with no response.
HOME is suing for more than $18,186.74, which covers the cost of their investigation, but overall Crislip says she hopes Vetter and other landlords will comply with the law.
Alex Guzman, Director of Fair Housing, says the Fair Housing Act falls under civil not criminal law. If criminal charges are brought to any landlord violating laws, it would be instituted by the Department of Justice.
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