The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Develop-ment has accused a West Salem landlord of violating the Fair Housing Act for refusing to rent to a single mother because she didn’t have a man “to shovel the snow.”
According to the charge against Dovenberg Investments, the unnamed woman answered an Internet ad in October 2010 for a two-bedroom home on a cattle farm in the Irish Coulee area. When asked how many people would be living there, she answered just herself and her child.
Darlene Dovenberg said she wouldn’t rent to the woman because she didn’t have a man to help, according to the charge. Dovenberg later rented the house to two men.
The woman told housing authorities she wanted to live in the house because it was cheaper than her current rent, closer to her job in La Crosse and in a school district where her disabled son would have better services.
During the HUD investigation, Dovenberg defended her actions, noting the house was in a hollow where winters are “brutal” and a single mother couldn’t handle the seclusion and snow removal. She said it was “just common sense” and asked the investigator if he would allow his daughter to live alone with a child a mile and a half from neighbors.
“If she thinks I discriminated against her, I absolutely did,” Dovenberg said, according to the complaint.
Dovenberg, who manages six rental properties, told housing authorities she never rents to single mothers, especially not in the country, and had no plans to change. She went on to complain that single mothers are part of the country’s financial problems and were not a problem in the 1960s and 70s.
Dovenberg told the Tribune Monday she was merely trying to protect the woman and her child because the house sits 500 feet off the road down a steep hill and has not satellite TV or cell phone reception.
“I just believe that safety comes first,” she said. “I did not feel like it would be a place for a man and a baby either.”
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion, gender, familial status or handicap in the sale or rental of housing. A first offense can result in a fine of up to $16,000 plus damages and attorney’s fees.
HUD investigates and attempts to resolve discrimination complaints. If conciliation fails and the agency finds reasonable cause, it will file a charge. HUD last year received 10,155 housing discrimination complaints. About 7 percent resulted in charges.
The charge will be heard by an administrative law judge unless either party requests to have the case moved to federal court. A judge who finds discrimination occurred can award damages as well as fines.
John Fischer owns and manages about 200 properties in the Wausau area and is a former president of the Wisconsin Apartment Association who writes a blog as “Dr. Rent.”
He says landlords can protect their interests without discriminating; he suggests looking at sources of income and references. If the property requires tenant upkeep, the landlord should make that clear. How it gets done is up to the tenant.
“It’s legitimate to say ‘You’re going to be responsible for lawn mowing. Is that going to be a problem?’” he said. “That is completely different from assuming the tenant can’t do it.”
Fischer said many of the discrimination cases he sees involve “mom and pop” landlords with one or two properties. He recommends taking a class in basic housing law.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re mom and pop, you’re a landlord,” he said. “With that one property you have to follow the same standard.”
Pamela Strittmater, president of the Apartment Association of the La Crosse Area, teaches classes on everything from state and federal laws to lead paint laws. The classes are free with the group’s $225 membership dues — which Strittmater points out is much cheaper than going to court.