Sussex County Council, Sussex County Board of Adjustment and Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission members all attended a training session on fair housing this week, sponsored by the Delaware State Housing Authority and the State Division of Human Relations.
Vincent A, Petroff, supervisor with the Division of Human Relations, and Ines C. Hungria, an investigator with the Division of Human Relations, presented the members with basics on the federal fair-housing law, as well as Delaware laws not covered by the federal regulations.
For example, protected classes regulated by federal law include race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, disability and gender. Additional covered classes that are covered by Delaware state law only include marital status, sexual orientation, creed and age (age 18 or older).
Hungria presented the members with examples of cases they have seen in Delaware and in other areas and described the different types of discrimination, including overt, discrimination where there is differential treatment, and discrimination that comes from a practice or policy that is applied uniformly but that results in a discriminatory effect on a group of protected persons.
She also spoke of discriminatory practices in mortgage lending.
People required to comply with the Federal Fair Housing Act (Title VIII) and the Delaware State Fair Housing Act (Title VI) include property owners and private landlords, public housing providers, lending institutions, insurance companies, zoning boards and municipalities, HUD, developers and others.
Those not required to comply with fair-housing laws include owners of only one or two single-family homes, religious organizations, private clubs and those falling under the “Ms. Murphy exemption.” That exemption means that, for example, if a dwelling has four or fewer rental units and the owner lives in one of those units, that home is exempt from the FHA. Hungria explained that these types of people are exempted “unless a discriminatory comment is made,” either in person or in advertising.
Often in rental ads, references to requiring non-smoking tenants and no pets can be seen, and many of those in attendance at the session asked about the legality of such limitations.
“Smokers are not a protected class,” answered Hungria, adding that owners can allow or not allow pets, according to their wishes.
However, service animals — a common one being a seeing-eye dog — were discussed in detail after Hungria illustrated a murkier example in which a person with depression has a pit bull to ease his mental ailment.
“What about that?” asked Councilman Sam Wilson. “What if you have neighbors asking why this one guy is allowed to have a pet and they are not?” Others also asked about the potential danger from such a companion animal and the rights of all involved.
“Now, if the dog is a direct threat to neighbors, that’s different,” Hungria clarified. She said a “perceived” threat wouldn’t qualify for a reason to prohibit the service animal, only if the service animal actually was a threat or did harm to neighbors would the person with the disability be asked to leave or surrender the companion animal.
She also said if neighbors or a large portion of the community had a problem with one person having a service/companion animal, housing officials could come and conduct training and try to mediate and encourage understanding between all the parties involved.
Hungira went over other possible scenarios and information about fair housing. Many asked about situations specific to their positions on the various boards, such as a wheelchair ramp encroaching on a setback. Petroff said they could email any specific questions, and the commission would be there to help.
For more information on fair housing regulations, visit http://statehumanrelations.delaware.gov.