Terry Mislap sensed that something was not right when a rental apartment employee told her that, even though she had a Section 8 voucher that allowed for a two-bedroom apartment, she was required to rent a larger, more expensive unit.
Similarly, Donna Karyzik’s experience, when she attempted to rent a three-bedroom apartment for her family of four, did not meet the “smell test.”
Both women were referred to HOPE, Inc., a Miami non-profit housing organization, which joined the women and two other plaintiffs in a 2005 housing discrimination lawsuit against Cornerstone Residential Management, Inc.
The prominent affordable housing developer is also the property manager for over 7,500 affordable housing units in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
The complaint alleged that Cornerstone was violating federal housing discrimination laws that do not allow restrictions on the number of people per bedroom in an apartment.
Five years later, in June, the case was settled out of court.
According to the agreement, Cornerstone denied violating the federal and Florida Fair Housing Acts, and denied engaging in any wrongful conduct. The company did agree, however, to implement a two-person-per-bedroom policy, as well as having its staff participate in training for the next three years.
A message seeking comment from Cornerstone at its locally listed phone number was not immediately returned.
Keenya Robertson is the president and chief executive officer of HOPE (Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence, Inc.), the only private, non-profit fair housing organization in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that is currently engaged in testing for fair-housing law violations.
“I am pleased that we were able to reach an agreement that will benefit families in need of affordable housing opportunities in and outside of our service area,” Robertson said. “I give full credit to the single mothers who took a stand, not only for themselves and their families, but for others. I am, however, disappointed that it took five years to accomplish something that seemed simple and apparent at the outset.”
She added that a 2005 injunction did force Cornerstone to immediately discontinue its one person-per-bedroom policy.
The specific relief afforded the plaintiffs is confidential, but the June 2010 agreement requires that Cornerstone modify its policy related to occupancy restrictions, which essentially allowed for only “one heartbeat per bedroom,” in several of its 27 apartment complexes in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Mislap, 38, said the prospect of moving into a newly constructed apartment in 2005 drew her to Sanctuary Cove in North Lauderdale, but that her excitement soon turned to disappointment.
“When I took my kids and went to walk in the door, they had on a sheet of paper on a plastic display telling you what the guidelines to move in were, and the one heartbeat thing really kind of made me angry,” the mother of two sons said. “They wouldn’t let us see anything. They wouldn’t let me talk to a property manager, and the property manager did not have a voicemail, which I thought was very unheard of.”
She left the complex. Still bothered by the experience, though, she pulled her car over to call her public-housing caseworker, who advised her to get a lawyer, and referred her to HOPE.
Robertson said that Mislap’s encounter “started the whole case;” and that HOPE’s testing activity found further evidence of discriminatory policy at the Cornerstone property.
“What we do is based on the information we get from a complainant. We will design a test, which is a process by which we compare the treatment of one particular class or person who belongs to a class, against the treatment of another,” Robertson explained.
In this case, the testers, who are trained individuals sent out by HOPE, presented themselves to the property’s management as prospective renters. They were able to confirm that the policy of allowing only one person per bedroom was being implemented against families with children.
Cornerstone had established occupancy restrictions for all of its properties, most of which limited occupancy to fewer than two persons per bedroom. Apparently unaware of the federal law that forbids this practice, Cornerstone managers actually provided potential renters a written policy that spelled out the one-child-per-bedroom policy before giving people rental applications.
As a result of occupancy restrictions, families who exceeded them were denied housing, or paid more for their housing because they were forced to live in a larger unit.
While testing did not occur at all 27 of Cornerstone’s properties, all are subject to the agreement because they are owned and operated by the same company.
Additionally, HOPE will continue to monitor the company to ensure its compliance with the agreement.
Robertson’s advice to anyone who suspects that they’ve been victimized by discriminatory housing practices is to contact her office.
“If it offends your common sense, if it doesn’t smell right, look right, sound right,” she said, people should take action.
The married mother of two said the women involved in the Cornerstone case are her “sheroes.”
“They stood up and represented, they stood up for other people who were similarly situated. And they effectuated change. They did not just go for recovery for themselves, they made change for others and that’s just really important and significant,” Robertson said.
Mislap, who was represented by attorney Matthew Dietz, said she had no choice but to take a stand.
“Our struggle for the last five years was not in vain. We may not live at Sanctuary Cove, but we’ve allowed other people that can afford it to live [there] without the stipulation of the one heartbeat rule,” Mislap said.
For more information about HOPE, Inc., please visit www.hopefhc.com or call 305-651-HOPE (4673).