A public hearing about the practices of the Commission of Human Rights and Opportunity before the General Assembly's investigation committee was packed with visibly angry Connecticut property owners wearing neon green stickers that read “Fair Housing Lacks Due Process.”
Bob De Cosmo, manager of Tenant Tracks, a Waterbury based tenant screening company, says Connecticut rental property owners have a legitimate grievance and a right to fair treatment by the CHRO. “We’re trying to get some fairness back into this process in housing,” De Cosmo said. “When you’re accused of violating any of the fair housing laws, you’re up against a stiff challenge to clear your name and get out."
De Cosmo says the CHRO creates a situation in which the business or property owner is forced to pay for frivolous claims to avoid the time and legal expenses of disputing the claim, regardless of the merits of the case.
“We’re all for fair housing and we’re all against discrimination. But we think the process should be fair.”
The CHRO is tasked with investigating and attempting to mitigate claims of discrimination in both business employment and housing, but their methods came under serious scrutiny at the hearing.
Many business and property owners feel the odds are stacked against them and gave a list of practices they felt were unfair.
- Complainants are allowed to have their case reconsidered by the CHRO as many times as they like even if their complaint may have been dismissed numerous times because it lacked merit. Property owners can only appeal to the court system.
- Documents submitted to the CHRO by employers and property owners have to be notarized and filed on time or else the case is defaulted. There are no such restrictions on the complainants.
- The employer or property owner is forced to participate in mandatory mediation before the CHRO investigation determines whether or not the case has merit.
- Complainants have the ability to recoup legal expenses while respondents cannot, even if they win their case.
- Complainants do not have to give sworn testimony, whereas the respondents, either business owners or property owners, do have to provide sworn testimony.
Robert Chesson, an attorney representing the Connecticut Apartment Association, made the case that while complainants merely had to fill out a form to start an investigation by the CHRO, property owners had to provide numerous documents dating back two years, including information that is technically illegal to collect, such as the race of applicants.
In their testimony before the committee, CHRO Executive Director Tanya A. Hughes and Deputy Director Cheryl Sharp, said that limiting the amount of appeals a claimant can make in a particular case would be “unfair.” However, the CHRO did support the idea of no longer requiring respondents to give sworn testimony.
Hughes cited the fact that the CHRO is processing more claims in a timely manner than previous years and testified that the number of settlements had increased. This drew a question from Rep. Cara Christine Pavalock, R-Bristol, on the legitimacy and motivation behind a “quasi-judicial agency” claiming success through generating settlement money.
Hughes said it was just “one way” of measuring the work the agency performed.
Charles Krich, principle attorney for the CHRO, said “we’re given the authority to do what is normally handled by court.” “We’re here to try to resolve these things informally before they get to court.”
However, property owners said the practices of the CHRO amounted to “extortion.”
Bill Luth, a retired police officer and property owner, was involved in a case which took place between 2007 and 2011. Luth, says the attorney fees and costs added up to over $50,000 and the CHRO continued to pursue the claim even though the claimant had moved to South Carolina.
“They kept telling me just give the lady $3,500 and she’ll go away. But I wouldn’t because I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Luth says an African-American woman who attempted to rent an apartment from him would not provide a driver’s license or any other form of identification on the application. He instead rented the apartment to an African-American man with three children.
Luth says he eventually settled and paid the woman. “It just went on and on and on. I’m shell-shocked.” Luth has since sold off most of his properties and retains one multi-family house. “I wasn’t wrong,” Luth said. “But I couldn’t keep going.”
But the complaints were not limited to property owners.
Eric Gjede of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association testified that since the year 2000 the number of complaints before the CHRO dropped due to lack of evidence has dropped from 44 percent to one percent. “We’re not trying to eliminate the process altogether,” Gjede said. “We’re trying to create a process that is fair and moves quicker.”
Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, said the change in the number of cases dismissed without merit was “astounding,” provided they were accurate. Both CHRO and CBIA were asked to provide further documentation to either support or dispute the figures.
CBIA said Connecticut should follow the guidelines set by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Outside the hearing, property owner Pete Damato of Woodbury, said he is concerned about “fair process” in housing complaints. “Any form of discrimination is just bad business, any responsible property owner would know that.”
“The fear is that it could be any one of us, any day. Any disgruntled applicant has nothing to lose, a very low bar to cross by filing out a form and effectively put me out of business.”
Wednesday it was announced that the Program Review and Investigations Committee staff would be reassigned to other duties, effectively limiting the committee's ability to investigate programs.