Landlords fined for alleged discrimination against families with children

Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Four landlords and rental agents in western Massachusetts — including one each in Amherst and Belchertown — will pay $13,000 in penalties after they agreed to settle allegations that they discriminated against families with children over the presence of lead-paint hazards in the homes and apartments they are attempting to rent.

The Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, based in Holyoke, announced that on Nov. 10 it settled the claims alleging that these companies, which own homes in Northampton, Amherst, Belchertown and other area communities, had intentionally directed families away from properties containing lead paint.

They did so either by arguing that the homes were not suitable for rent as a way to protect children from the effects of lead paint, or by refusing to obtain a lead certificate by removing lead paint from the homes.

Ashley Grant, legal director for the Fair Housing Center, said in a phone interview this week that the settlements came as the result of a “vigorous campaign” to protect families from this form of discrimination, and will be effective at lifting up all families seeking housing in the area by ensuring there is more safe housing available for rent.

“We really are committed to redirecting our resources and ending this kind of discrimination,” Grant said.

Valley Property Management, of Amherst, agreed to a $6,500 penalty. Grant said managers for that company told Fair Housing testers that they would not be able to get apartments tested for lead and deleaded in time for families to move in, and also discouraged families from certain buildings that might not be appropriate for children.

One property that was used as part of the test was in Amherst, with others in Holyoke, Chicopee and Westfield, Grant said.

Reached by email Thursday, Dec. 1, Alan St. Hilaire, manager for Valley Property Management, said he needed more time to speak to employees in his office before publicly commenting.

Others landlords and rental agencies, fined a combined $6,500, include RJB Properties LLC, managed by Richard J. Bellicchi of Longmeadow, James Amaral and a nonprofessional landlord Grant wouldn’t identify.

Lead paint rules

In the four cases, filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, landlords or their agents corresponded with trained testers used by the Fair Housing Center to locate apartments available for rent on the website Craigslist.

“In some of the cases they were discouraged from applying. In some they raised the issue of young children as a problem,” Grant said. “That puts families in a position where they are discriminated against, or denied housing, or offered housing that is not safe.”

State law prohibits those renting properties from refusing to rent because of lead-based paint hazards, and if a family opts to rent these properties the property manager or owner must comply with requirements of deleading and removing all such hazards, Grant said.

Both Bellicchi and Amaral have agreed to remove lead paint from their properties, Grant said.

This proactive effort is the type of action appreciated by her agency, Grant said, as the housing stock in the region tends to be old, with three-quarters of residences built before the late 1970s ban on lead paint, and relatively few have been deleaded.

“What we want to do is create more lead-safe properties,” Grant said.

The money from the fines will be used to fund advertisements intended to inform families that they are welcome to rent any home, whether it has lead paint present. The funds will also pay for a public education campaign about this kind of discrimination.

A similar effort in 2015 to identify lead paint discrimination, undertaken the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, led to a combined $9,500 against a local real estate company and two property owners.

Massachusetts Fair Housing Center’s work is supported by grants from the HUD’s Fair Housing Initiatives program.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.