Fair housing watchdog group claims rental ads biased against families


FOR RENT: "Old Homeland. Available 10/1/93. Quiet country setting. 2BR apartment in restored Victorian. Ideal for married couple/professional. . ."

What's wrong with this ad? Plenty, says a group that has fought housing discrimination aimed at blacks and now is looking at housing bias against families with children.

Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. says that the ad contains language that can steer families with children from certain rental homes in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

BNI says when apartment hunters read "ideal for married couple/professional," those who have children would not consider responding.

In lawsuits filed in state and federal courts Wednesday, BNI charges that three newspaper publishers violated the federal law by carrying such discriminatory ads.

Some of the ads were more obvious, specifically saying "no children."

One lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore against the Great Southern Printing & Manufacturing Co., publisher of the Frederick News-Post. Lawsuits were filed in Baltimore Circuit Court against Patuxent Publishing Co., which publishes the Columbia Flier and the Howard County Times, and Homestead Publishing Co. for ads carried in the Aegis. Homestead is owned by Times-Mirror Co., which also publishes The Sun.

C. Christopher Brown, an attorney for BNI, said the group filed the lawsuits to persuade area newspaper publishers to comply with the fair-housing law, which was amended in 1988 to ban housing bias against children.

"It is surprising they haven't started following the law," Mr. Brown said. "The hope is that by filing the lawsuit, they will get the message that BNI is going to be after you if you don't shape up and fly right."

Lawyers for the publishers said that BNI sued before discussing its concerns with them.

Jean Moon, Patuxent's general manager, acknowledged problems with several ads carried in her company's newspapers. But she said that Patuxent follows a checklist that was drafted by the Greater Baltimore Fair Housing Advertising Task Force to enable classified employees to screen discriminatory language.

"We have every intention of complying with the law 100 percent," Ms. Moon said.

Ms. Moon said the problem could have been caused by the rapid turnover of its classified advertising staff.

"I don't know if we're able to identify the person who took the ad. We may never be able to identify that person."

Jeffrey Smith, legal counsel for Homestead, said the company discovered its troublesome ads while conducting an internal evaluation. He said the publisher responded in July by retraining classified employees and by reporting the problem to the task force.

Mr. Smith said Homestead had given a statement about its problems to BNI, which belongs to the task force along with area publishers, advertisers and real estate firms.

"Homestead has a policy regarding fair-housing advertising and works very hard to ensure compliance," he said.

Theodore Sherbow, a lawyer for the News-Post, said he could not comment until he gathers more information about the problem.

Mr. Brown, the BNI lawyer, said this was the first time the group has sued claiming housing bias against children. It normally challenges racial discrimination in housing.

"BNI is not getting a lot of complaints about race-based housing discrimination, which is a good sign," he said. "But they're getting a lot of complaints about families with kids running into problems getting housing."

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