A Wisconsin couple has been charged with discrimination by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for denying the rental application of a family with five children.
On Tuesday, HUD charged Chuck and Lynn Hietpas with violating the Fair Housing Act — a 1968 law that prohibits denying people housing “based on familial status” along with other factors such as race, religion, sex and disability.
As owners of a three-bedroom duplex on 102 West 11th Street in Kaukauna, WI., the Heitpas were actively trying to rent out one side of the property in June 2015. After receiving a text message from a couple who had seen a for-sale sign on another property, Chuck Heitpas told them about the duplex — it cost $1,050 a month and would be available on Aug. 1.
After touring the house and paying a $100 application fee, the couple listed a 12-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter on the application. They also wrote that a 14-year-old son, a 12-year-old daughter, and a 6-year-old son would be living there half of the year.
According to the lawsuit, the owner said that his “wife isn’t comfortable with having five children living in the duplex” in a later phone call.
“She thinks this is too many kids and having three boys sharing a bedroom would be too many for one room even if two of the boys are only there part-time,” Chuck Hietpas allegedly told the applicants. According to their city’s housing and property maintenance code, the three-bedroom unit was large enough for the family even if all of the children live there all the time. The code requires each room used for sleeping to have at least 70 square feet total and 50 square feet per occupant.
“We just don’t feel that the house would be cleaned properly and are concerned things would get stained and damaged,” Chuck Heitpas allegedly said, while also expressing concern that one of the adult applicants had a vaping habit.
When one of the applicants sent a text message asking the Heitpas about the status of their application, they received a denial. They returned the application fee over the mail the following week.
“I thought about it quite a bit, but I still think it would be best if you found a 4br there was one that looked pretty good on Craig’s list you should check that one out,” Chuck Heitpas wrote back over text. “I am sorry as you seem like nice people but we just wouldn’t feel comfortable.”
The applicants then made a complaint with HUD, which looked into the case and pressed charges.
“Denying rental opportunities to families simply because they have children not only robs them of the chance to obtain the housing they need, but it also violates the law,” said Anna María Farías, HUD’s assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, in a statement. “HUD will continue working to ensure that property owners and housing providers meet their obligation to treat all applicants the same.”
The Hietpas’ case will be heard in court by a U.S. Administrative Law Judge in the coming months. If the judge finds that the Hietpas violated the Fair Housing Act, they could be ordered to pay attorney fees, injunctive and other equitable relief as well as damages for the harm caused to the applicants.
“Assuming that families with children make bad tenants is an unlawful stereotype,” said Paul Compton, HUD’s general counsel, in a statement. “When a housing provider refuses to rent to a family because the family has children, the refusal violates the Fair Housing Act.”