The American Dream, Minus the Kids
Maria Sierra and her son, Adrian, wheel into the parking lot of a Hollywood condominium known as Paradise Gardens, where she helps the five-year-old boy out of her car. The three-story complex appears tidy -- stairs clean, wood trim freshly painted, grass green and cut.
Sierra beams. Dressed in black trousers and blouse, the 25-year-old single mom carries a check for $1975 to put down on a new condominium, the first home she will ever own. Cost: $46,000. Sierra's annual income is less than $23,000. On that salary she can pay the monthly mortgage of about $380, not too stiff a price for independence but perhaps stiffer than it should have been.
For Sierra, who works a full-time job and attends night school, this is the American dream: her own home, a quiet neighborhood, a chance to get ahead. But the dream could have been less costly if another Hollywood condominium association had not ignored federal and state Fair Housing laws. Frank Vargas, a Hollywood mortgage broker, claims the condo association illegally discouraged Sierra from buying a unit in order to keep out her son. Kids were not allowed.
Such discrimination happens regularly and often remains unchallenged because sometimes it's hard to prove and because people often fail to understand their rights, say state and federal officials.
Sierra's case, however, is not difficult to prove. She had her eye on a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home priced at $32,000 in the Jackson Arms complex on Van Buren Street. In a deal arranged by Vargas, president of Capital Mortgage, she had a mortgage arranged at a comfortable $260 per month.
"The place was nicer than what she has now, and she was all set, all approved," Vargas says. "She put down $1000, and she had paid the $335 fee to inspect the unit." Then she visited Jackson Arms with her son in tow.
"We started walking around, and my son was playing all around, you know, he's a little boy," Sierra recalls. "Two old people came out of some condos and said, 'Are you going to be the new neighbor?' I told them yes. They didn't like it."
The next day the president of the homeowners association faxed Vargas a copy of the condo's rules. Dated 1980, the Jackson Arms "Rules and Regulations" appear to violate the 1988 federal Fair Housing Act. Rule number 11 reads, "No children under the age of 17 years are to be permitted upon the premises, except as temporary visitors for no more than 30 days during any given calendar year."
The U.S. Fair Housing Act strongly prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status -- meaning children -- or disability. A condominium association can make an exception and reserve sales for only those 55 and older if it meets special standards: providing on-site programs for the elderly, special transportation, maintaining an elderly residency rate of at least 85 percent, and clearly stating all of that in written rules. Jackson Arms does not meet those standards or advertise them in its rules.
Vargas wanted Sierra to fight her way in, to insist on her rights, but she decided to avoid confrontation. Especially after Vargas told her about the telephone call from Joanne Williams, the homeowners association president.
As Vargas tells it, "I had a lawyer send [Williams] a letter explaining that she couldn't keep out children from Jackson Arms, and she called and told me that even if Maria won and moved in there, they would make her miserable. I got fed up because I see this a lot." Sierra, however, says she doesn't care. "I'd have to live there with my son, and I don't want their anger," she explains. Williams did not return telephone messages asking for comment.
Sierra has joined the ranks of many other victims of discrimination in Broward County. In the most recent study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Broward County citizens generate the third highest number of fair-housing complaints in Florida. And the county is number one in complaints alleging discrimination because of children. About one-fourth of the 400 complaints made in Broward between 1989 and 1996 came from families who said they were turned away from purchasing or renting homes because they had children.
"This discrimination is common; it happens all the time in Hollywood and all over Broward," says Vargas, who also happens to be president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce. "Most people don't know their rights or don't want to fight it. And HUD, they move so slowly, it's disgusting."
Last year in Hollywood, HUD investigated only one fair-housing complaint and failed to complete even that. In Broward County 42 families filed fair-housing complaints, and 35 remain under investigation, according to HUD statistics.
If HUD doesn't do anything about a discrimination problem, the State Attorney General's Office can, but such an action is infrequent, says Allison Bethel, assistant director of civil rights. Discrimination against families with children is "not uncommon" in Broward County, Bethel notes, but often hard to prove. "Our resources are limited, and if we don't receive a complaint, we usually don't do anything," she says.
But two years ago, Attorney General Bob Butterworth set a precedent in Florida by suing the Westwood Community Two homeowners association for refusing to accept families with children, naming six individuals in the suit. No individual in an association had ever been held liable for discriminating in Florida prior to that case.
"The community was discriminating egregiously against families with children," Bethel explains, "so we felt we should step in." Politically powerful homeowners associations complained angrily, claiming Butterworth's action would discourage residents from volunteering to serve on condo boards. But the attorney general pursued the case until a judge decided that the Tamarac community did not qualify as housing for older persons and could not exclude children.
No fine was imposed, however, and "at the time, we decided not to pursue judgments any further against the board members personally, but we could still do that," Bethel says. "We feel we made our point."
The attorney general, however, did not make his point at the 20-unit Jackson Arms on Van Buren Street, which discouraged Sierra and her five-year-old from buying a unit. Although HUD lawyers might eventually pursue such a case on Sierra's behalf, she has another option, says Linda Allen, a HUD spokeswoman in Atlanta. Like the Attorney General's Office, HUD is also understaffed for this kind of work, so it contracts three private, nonprofit agencies to "test" cases of discrimination and to pursue out-of-court settlements on behalf of victims in Florida. One of those, HOPE, Inc., has offices in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
"Oh yeah, [Sierra] ought to call us," says Bill Thompson, president of HOPE, an acronym for Housing Opportunities Project For Excellence. For Thompson and his 21-member outfit, there's good money in discrimination.
He has a $300,000 HUD contract to conduct 200 "tests" per year. HOPE "testers," black, white, and Hispanic, walk into condominiums and inquire about purchasing or renting units. If they're treated unfairly, they take action, filing a report with HUD. As antidiscrimination freelancers they can then sue on behalf of clients. HOPE takes a percentage of any settlement money won but charges clients nothing for legal work if they lose, Johnson says.
Since 1991 HOPE has won $6.7 million for clients, much of it in out-of-court settlements. The organization won a settlement of more than $250,000 in Hollywood three years ago for a black college student who was turned away from a condominium that advertised three units. "They were very nice when she got there, but they told her the places had just been sold," Johnson recalls. When he sent a white "tester" the next day, a unit was suddenly available for sale.
Such an outcome in Sierra's case would help remind condominium associations that they are not above the law, Vargas insists. He arrives at Paradise Gardens, jumps out of his truck, and studies the check Sierra holds. Congratulating her, he also reminds Sierra of the discrimination she faced at Jackson Arms. "You sure you don't want to go after them? You're a victim, you can pursue this," he says.
Gazing at her new home's clean façade and the green expanse of Lincoln Park less than a block away, Sierra nods her head. "Well, I'm thinking about it," she replies quietly.
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