In her search for a house to rent, Kristin Bradbury has called maybe a dozen property owners, and the excuses she’s heard fall into a few distinct categories.
When she asks about renting a home in Madison, Conn., and mentions that she and husband Anderson (Andy) have three children, property owners are quick to share concerns about the capabilities of their properties’ septic tanks. Or they say that no other children live nearby and wouldn’t the Bradburys prefer a neighborhood with other children?
The excuses come down to the same thing: Property owners do not want to rent to the Bradburys — or, more specifically, they do not want to rent to the Bradbury children.
Property owners are so genteel about their concerns that it’s easy to overlook that what they’re doing – refusing to rent to children — is illegal.
Children are a protected class in Connecticut and elsewhere. But housing discrimination against families with children is among the most frequent complaints reported to the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, said Erin Kemple, executive director. The center hears most from people who are disabled who are being discriminated against when they seek housing. The next more common complaints revolve around discrimination based on a family’s source of income, as well as the presence of children, Kemple said.
Such discrimination is “not allowed, but it does happen,” said Kemple. “And sometimes it’s an outright ‘You can’t live here because you have children.’ Sometimes it’s a softer denial,” something along the lines of a property owner worrying that property isn’t large enough for a family.
Discriminating against families with children has been illegal since the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, which was amended in 1988 to include familial status (as well as pregnant women who are seeking homes). The protections extend not only to actually renting a property, as well as the advertising for that property. The law also prohibits owners from saying a unit is unavailable, when it is available.
A fair rental housing market is critical for several reasons, not the least of which is the rush to rent. The Great Recession gave birth to a reluctance to embrace home ownership as essential to happiness, according to the Urban Institute’s What Works Collaborative. In the last three years, single-family rentals have increased by 30 percent.
A 2016 study from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development said that a third of American renter households include children. The study said that landlords were especially leery of renting one-bedroom units to families with children, no matter the race, ethnicity, or ages of the potential tenants. Regardless of the property size, the study said that the younger the children, the greater the hesitancy to rent to their families.
So at the most critical time of a child’s development, the family may have trouble finding adequate housing. Housing stability is critical to childhood development, according to a 2015 study from the Center for Social Development. Housing discrimination against families with children can have life-long effects.
Part of the issue, said Kemple, is that property owners count on renters not knowing the law. She said HUD estimates that just 17 percent of people report discrimination in housing. Kemple said her office often hears about discrimination in trainings. Tenants will mention, in passing, that they’d been discouraged from renting because they have children, or they were asked for a higher security deposit – or the rent was outright raised when they said they had children.
If someone reports housing discrimination, Kemple said the center investigates, and sometimes send out people who pose as renters.
“They can’t do anything to treat people differently if they’re a member of a protected class,” said Kemple. If property owners mention that their property contains lead paint, as Kemple says, “If you can’t rent to everyone, you can’t rent to anyone.”
In Connecticut, according to the Partnership for Strong Communities, 32 percent of families in the state include people who are younger than 18. Slightly less than a half-million – 446,356 – properties are renter occupied, compared to nearly 1.5 million owner-occupied properties.
The Bradburys currently rent a three-bedroom, two-story farmhouse within walking distance of the bustling downtown and one of the town’s beaches. Sometimes, Kristin and Anderson, who works at an area hospital, load the children into a wagon and take advantage of their gracious seaside town’s amenities.
Those amenities include a school system that, said Kristin Bradbury, has been wonderful for their children, two of whom have special needs.
But the rent for their three-bedroom home is high — $2,200. That’s roughly double what they would pay for similar property in their native North Carolina.
She hasn’t pushed to see properties where the owners were reluctant because, as she said, she doesn’t want to start a business relationship with a landlord who doesn’t want the family in the property in the first place. But a prohibitively high rental market has made the family consider leaving the state. As with so many younger families, they may find themselves priced out of the genteel seaside villages and good schools.