A Columbia woman who participates in the government-funded Housing Choice Voucher Program has filed a discrimination complaint against a major real estate company after she was denied the opportunity to rent a Columbia townhouse last year.
Shervon Diggs is alleging discrimination based on source of income against Long & Foster in a case being heard by the Howard County Human Rights Commission.
The commission held hearings in the case on May 21 and 22. A continuation hearing has yet to be scheduled but is likely to be in September, commissioners said.
County Office of Human Rights Administrator Vernon Gray said this is the first time in his five years heading the office in which the commission has had to hold a hearing on a discrimination case. Most cases, he said, are settled before that point.
In this case, the Office of Human Rights found probable cause to believe Diggs was discriminated against based on her source of income. Diggs has lived in homes funded through the Housing Choice Voucher Program, commonly referred to as Section 8, for the past 12 years. Her voucher covers all but $25 of her rent.
On or about Feb. 4, 2011, Diggs applied, through Long and Foster, to rent a town house on Softwater Way in Columbia, owned by Vincent and Raquel Sanudo. (Raquel Sanudo served as the chief administrative officer under former county executives Chuck Ecker and Jim Robey.) Her application was denied a week later.
The Applicant Processing Report that Long & Foster prepared for the Sanudos contained the following language that the Office of Human Rights found discriminatory to Diggs and other housing choice voucher holders: "In order to financially qualify for the rental ... it is suggested that the applicant(s) should earn no less than $77,000.00 annually. However in certain circumstances they could be required to earn more if the agent and the owner feel the verified income is weak."
Long & Foster's attorney, Timothy Casey, said the company policy when drafting an Applicant Processing Report, "which is generally recognized in leasing of residential properties, (is) that you multiply the monthly rent by a factor of 40 to come up with the recommended annual income that you present to their client."
He said that when the company has "a bona fide voucher," the annual income is put in as $0, but in this case Long & Foster did not have a bona fide voucher for Diggs.
Diggs, in testimony before the commission, said her Long & Foster real estate agent Sheree Whitby told her on Feb. 11, 2011 that her application to rent to the Sanudos townhouse was denied "based on the fact that I didn't have any income should something happen." She said she asked for a denial letter but never received one.
Whitby, however, said she was not aware of such a thing as denial letters, though she unsuccessfully asked another Long & Foster for one anyway.
"I don't know of anybody who's received a denial letter," she said.
Whitby said the only reason she was given for Diggs not being allowed to rent the Softwater Way property was that another tenant had been selected.
She claimed it was another real estate company for another property — the first one Diggs had applied to — that had given Diggs' credit score and lack of job as a reason for denying her. Whitby said she told her manager and Diggs about that.
Casey said the Sanudos did not select Diggs, who was one of four applicants, to rent the property because she could not move in until March 1, 2011; the applicant they selected could move in immediately.
"The idea of someone taking their townhouse immediately was more important to them than the income of that applicant," Casey said.
But Phillip Wise, an investigator for the Office of Human Rights, said Whitby told him that the Sanudos' real estate agent said to her that "because she did not have job, sufficient income and might not be able to pay for repairs, the owners decided to go with another tenant."
Diggs was originally pursuing her discrimination case against the Sanudos, as well as Long & Foster, but during a brief closed session before the May 21 hearing began, the two parties reached an agreement that resulted in Kelly Perkins, Diggs' attorney, withdrawing the complaint against the Sanudos.
However, the Sanudos are expected to be called back as witnesses as Casey presents his case at the next hearing.
Staff writer David Greisman contributed to this report.