Know your rights


Joan Johnson can spend an entire day running one errand.

Johnson, an elderly woman on a fixed income, lives in Rankin Terrace, a public housing complex on 11th Street. 

There are no grocery stores near her apartment so each shopping trip requires planning.

“If you don’t have transportation, you have to pay for a taxi or pay someone to take you. If you take the bus, it’s almost an all-day fiasco trying to go to the store and come back,” Johnson said.

When a low-income senior housing facility in Pine Valley was proposed in 2012, Johnson said she was excited about the possibility to be closer to shops and services and cut down transportation hassles.

“I’m 68 years old. If I could get somewhere like that, that was close to grocery stores, drugstores and doctors’ offices, it would have been perfect,” Johnson said.

Wilmington City Council denied Wilmington Housing Authority’s request to rezone the 10-acre plot for multi-family use, citing concerns about decreased property value and increased crime rates in the neighborhood.

“I felt discriminated against. They didn’t want low-income people in the community but … just because I’m on Social Security doesn’t mean I’m not a productive human being. I worked. That’s why I can get Social Security,” Johnson said.

Rankin Terrace has been Johnson’s home for 10 years. Before she retired, she worked as a case manager at Coastal Horizons Center.

Housing discrimination is bigger than uneasy feelings about public housing and low-income families entering well-to-do neighborhoods. Renters and homebuyers alike face discrimination based on race, age, gender, disability status and more.

Jack Holtzman, attorney with the Fair Housing Project at Legal Aid of North Carolina, explained which rights and responsibilities are protected by fair housing laws during a May 15 workshop organized by the Cape Fear Housing Project, the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County.

A handful of state and federal fair housing laws serve two purposes: to prevent housing discrimination and promote residential integration. Holtzman focused on the state and federal Fair Housing Acts, which offer broad protection.

“[The laws] cover public housing and private housing. With very few exceptions, the Fair Housing Act covers almost every single dwelling,” Holtzman said.

Individuals living in single- and multi-family houses, group homes, even shelters and migrant housing are covered under the laws.

Discrimination based on race, religion, gender, familial status and disability is prohibited.

Holtzman explained how simple statements and actions by landlords or Realtors could qualify as unlawful discrimination.

A landlord cannot request proof of citizenship, unless it is an equally enforced policy, or stipulate how many children can sleep in each bedroom. A Realtor cannot suggest a family with five children would be happier in a community with more young families with children.

“If I had to boil this down, these fair housing laws, to one concept, it is treat everybody the same,” Holtzman said. “Don’t give a preference to one group over another. Don’t have different terms and conditions that are either worse or better based upon race or national origin or disability.”

Holtzman acknowledged that disability-based discrimination is trickier to pinpoint because disabled tenants must be treated differently to be treated the same. If a tenant is disabled and it is not apparent, a landlord can ask for verification of the disability if the tenant requests a ramp, grab bars or other modifications.

Funding responsibility for modifications for disabled tenants differs in private and public housing.

“In a private landlord situation, the tenant has to pay,” Holtzman said. “If it’s public, it’s different. It’s on the public dime, [but]it has to be reasonable to the disability.”

In private housing, the tenant is only required to pay to restore the unit back to its original state if modifications, like lowered countertops, restrict use by future tenants.

Many forms of discrimination are proscribed through fair housing laws but discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is still largely unregulated.

“Gender or sex is one of the protected categories. Sexual orientation is not … a protected category under our state or federal Fair Housing Act,” Holtzman said.

Holtzman noted gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals have limited protection in public housing due to a policy established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The policy at HUD insured or owned properties requires equal treatment and regardless of the fact that sexual orientation is not covered under the Fair Housing Act, requires … treat[ing]everybody equally, including based upon sexual orientation and marriage,” Holtzman said.

Victims of housing discrimination can contact the Fair Housing Project by calling 1-855-797-3247 for advice. Legal services are free if the project decides to represent the case.


Are you a victim of housing discrimination?

  • It is illegal to deny requests for housing due to race, color, religion, national origin, sex,
  • familial status and disability.
  • Fair housing laws cover renters and homeowners, public and private housing, even residents of homeless shelters.
  • False denial of availability, refusal to deal, discriminatory terms or conditions, financial discrimination and denial of reasonable accommodations for disabled persons are all illegal.
  • Victims of housing discrimination can contact the Fair Housing Project for free advice. All requests are confidential. Call 1-855-797-3247 to talk to a staff member or visit for more information.




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