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Whether it was the thought of crayon on the wainscoting, chewing gum in the keyholes or just the pitter-patter of tiny feet, ads written by six local landlords made their feelings clear: Tenants with children need not apply. What they probably didn’t know was that their posts on Craigslist, an online forum, were breaking the law. On March 14, the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York filed complaints with the New York City Commission on Human Rights against the landlords, charging them with housing discrimination.

“Clearly we are just dealing with the tip of the iceberg,” said Craig Gurian, executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center. “Imagine how many landlords harbor the same prejudices, but are less ostentatious in carrying them out.”

The New York Times also receives ads from landlords who don’t want children in their buildings, said a real-estate section staffer who did not want to be named. But according to spokesperson Toby Usnick, the Times does not post them, and informs landlords if they break the paper’s anti-discrimination policy.

A search by City Limits found another eight postings for apartments on Craigslist that ruled out families with children. One landlord, contacted by phone, said that his apartment—which occupies the first floor of a building—is too small for children; another said that children would make too much noise.

Spurred by the Anti-Discrimination Center, Craigslist is now working on ways to filter out discriminatory landlords. “What I need is for people to send me links to such ads. That way, I cannot only remove them, but also, tell the posters to cut it out,” said Craigslist founder Craig Newmark.

The Federal Housing Act, which legislates against discrimination by landlords, only has jurisdiction over owner-occupied buildings with more than four units. However, the postings violate the New York City Human Rights Law, which covers three- and four-unit owner-occupied buildings, and also extends to two family properties if they are advertised for rent. Of the city’s estimated three million homes, 750,000, one-quarter, are in buildings with five units or less.

The primary recourse for tenants who suspect a violation is the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Yet, the commission received only “two or three” complaints against landlords for discriminating against children last year, according to Avery Mehlman, deputy commissioner of its law enforcement bureau.

“Every case that is filed with the agency is a priority,” said Mehlman, but “the most serious discrimination is real estate agents and large landlords steering and discriminating against African Americans and other minorities.”

Federal complaints are more common. In the last four years, the New York Office of the Department of Housing and Development (HUD) received 130 complaints against landlords for discriminating against families with children, three of which were prosecuted. According to Adam Glantz, a HUD spokesperson, the rest either settled out of court, withdrew or were discontinued due to insufficient evidence.

Local tenant advocates say that they rarely hear from clients who have been discriminated against because of their children. Yet some point out that tenants may not know the basis for their discrimination or be afraid to file a complaint. Immigrants, for instance, often “don’t come out to complain,” said Tenzing Chadotsang, a housing counselor with the Chhaya Community Development Corporation. “Mostly they want to keep a low profile.”
Legal aid is not available for tenants to bring housing discrimination cases through the courts.

A 2002 survey prepared for HUD by the Urban Institute found a lack of awareness of the measures designed to safeguard tenants with children. According to the report, 59 percent of respondents thought it should be legal for landlords to treat tenants with children differently, and almost two out of five people in the report believed that responding to discrimination would be pointless or make the problem worse.

According to the report, “Of those who thought they had been discriminated against, 83 percent indicate they had done nothing about it.”

—Dan Bell

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