A bill to make changes to Ohio’s fair housing law has yet to have a hearing but a coalition on Monday announced a campaign in opposition.
Sen. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) said his measure (SB 349) would dial back the monetary relief fair housing organizations may seek when bringing claims against housing providers.
Fight SB349 coalition leader Jim McCarthy, president and CEO of the Miami Valley Fair Housing Center, described the bill as a “ham-handed attempt to take a swipe at private fair housing organizations.”
The bill deals with complaints and penalties brought against owners of rental property by fair housing organizations. Mr. Seitz said it mirrors federal law by making discretionary the actual damages, attorney fees and punitive damages that result from the proceedings. It also reflects the federal version by allowing respondents to recover attorney fees if they are the prevailing party.
It would also mirror federal law by exempting housing providers who own fewer than four single-family units.
“We’re moving Ohio law closer to federal law is what we’re doing, but federal law is still significantly more restrictive than Ohio law would be after passage of 349,” he said in an interview.
Mr. McCarthy said the only way in which Senate Bill 349 gets Ohio closer to federal law is by adding the “Mrs. Murphy” exemption, which excludes small landlords that own three or fewer single-family dwellings and do not use a real estate or leasing agent.
“The idea is really to protect the small mom and pop kind of providers, and while I think it’s a step backwards for Ohio to do that because we have always been recognized across the nation as a leader on civil rights, if that were the extent of Senate Bill 349, we would not have as much concern as we do,” he said.
Where the opposition campaign raises an issue is with the bill’s cap on punitive damages, he said.
The bill calls for damages to only be awarded in cases of actual malice and that they equate to no more than twice the amount of actual damages at $5,000 maximum on the first offense. Mr. Seitz said the cap is used in every other form of Ohio tort law.
Mr. McCarthy said the change would take Ohio’s law out of alignment with the federal version. The current state statue is considered “substantially equivalent” by the federal government, which in 1989 grandfathered in the Ohio version to allow it to locally investigate and resolve Fair Housing Act complaints at the administrative level for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, he said.
“What Seitz’s bill would do would result in that designation being stripped away,” he said, adding the coalition is waiting on an official opinion to that end from the HUD general counsel. “We would lose local or statewide enforcement, it would then revert back to federal enforcement through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and it would mean more than $1 million would go away because currently HUD pays the Ohio Civil Rights Commission…to investigate.”
Another way the bill would take Ohio out of compliance with the “substantially equivalent” agreement is by prohibiting actual or punitive damages from being awarded to a fair housing agency.
Sen. Seitz said, however, the Legislative Service Commission has advised him that the bill needs changed on that point. He said he is agreeable to an amendment that would allow fair housing groups to recover actual damages.
“I’m not sure what their actual damages would be, frankly…but I’m willing to amend the bill to allow that,” he said.
Mr. McCarthy said even with that amendment the bill would still take Ohio out of alignment with the federal law.
“That would be a step forward, but the federal law provides for compensatory damages, actual damages, as well as attorney fees and costs and punitive damages if the judge so determines,” he said. “Any legislation that would change that would take Ohio out of compliance with the federal law.”
The sponsor said he thinks the bill is fairly narrow. “It’s actually less than what the real estate investors asked for, but we’ve pared it back to what it currently contains.”
“We are allowing respondents in administrative proceedings, if they are successful, to recover their legal fees, just like we allow the prevailing party to recover their legal fees,” he said. “It’s going to work both ways; each side can recover their legal fees if they prevail in administrative proceedings.”
Mr. Seitz said he expects national and state real estate investors associations to support the bill, and the Ohio Apartment Owners group is also in agreement. He said he asked the Ohio Civil Rights Commission about the matter but received no response. The sponsor predicts the bill could be enacted next session if it is not completed this year.
He said the opposition has not spoken to him about their concerns and called the arguments “meritless.”
“We believe that some of these groups that are in opposition are simply looking at the effect of the bill being to dry up some of their extortion racket of trumping up generally spurious claims of discrimination and then holding people up for settlements and taking advantage of unsophisticated small landlords, and that’s what we’re trying to remedy,” Mr. Seitz said.
Mr. McCarthy responded by saying he thinks the lawmaker is “gravely mistaken with his information.”
“In fact, what he’s saying is that it should be alright for people to discriminate, and he’s thumbing his nose at years of civil rights juris prudence, both on the state and federal level,” he said.
Private, fair housing organizations receive funding through federal grants, he said. They will be able to continue their work even if the bill is passed, it will just result in a greater expense for respondents because they would either have to use the federal HUD administrative process or sue violators in state court.
Other coalition members include the Coalition for Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, Ohio Poverty Law Center, the Housing Research and Advocacy Center and a variety of fair housing groups.
“This bill takes Ohio back in the wrong direction,” COHHIO Executive Director Bill Faith said in a release. “It removes critical disincentives for landlords who would discriminate against people with disabilities, families with children, people of color or veterans. It denies the state federal funding to investigate discrimination complaints and lets discriminators go untouched.”