'Students Only' Rentals Nixed in Chicago-Area Community

A company that owns and operates multifamily rental housing in Evanston, Ill., has backed away from plans to limit occupancy in one of its buildings to only Northwestern University students, according to the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, an advocacy group that filed a federal fair housing case protesting the policy.

The case was highlighted in “Year in Review: Fair Housing Developments in 2011,” the December 2011 Special Issue of Fair Housing Coach, after a court ruled that the community could be liable for discrimination based on familial status for limiting housing to students.

The case began when Interfaith received a complaint from a resident that the community refused to rent units to individuals who were not students at Northwestern University. During its investigation, Interfaith said, testers posing as otherwise-qualified families with children—including Northwestern students with children—were told the housing wouldn’t be suitable for families and were turned away. According to Interfaith, families with children looking for housing in Evanston are often steered away from downtown, even though it’s close to shopping and public transit.

In its lawsuit, Interfaith accused the community of a fair housing violation based on familial status. The community, which denied the allegations, asked the court to dismiss the case.

The court refused, reasoning that the community could be liable for making discriminatory statements in violation of federal fair housing law. The court said that alleged comments that the building wasn’t suitable for families and that it was designed for students—not families—could lead an ordinary listener to believe that the community preferred not to rent to people with families [Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs v. Bernsen, July 2011].

Following the ruling, the community agreed to a settlement without an admission of liability. The settlement prohibits the company from engaging in discriminatory practices based upon familial status, including the advertising of housing or the restriction of rentals to Northwestern students only.

Interfaith said that increasing the supply of rental housing, “especially for larger households,” was a “high priority” of city officials. Citing the city’s Consolidated Plan to HUD, Interfaith pointed to the city’s expressed concern that “three- and four-bedroom units needed by large families are difficult to find in multifamily buildings, particularly at below-market rates.” Approximately 35 percent of Northwestern undergraduates live off-campus in Evanston. Another substantial number of graduate students, many of whom have families with children, live off-campus, including 70 percent of Kellogg business school students, according to the organization.

Interfaith reports that it’s working with the City of Evanston to ensure that landlords who choose to advertise to students understand their obligations under federal, state, and local fair housing laws, including not discriminating against families with children. This includes inaugurating workshops and print materials that promote Evanston as an open community.

Source: Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs