A Missoula developer and the builder of a multifamily housing unit here were charged Thursday with violating the federal Fair Housing Act.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development charged property owner Anthony Boote and builder Charles Chandler, owner of Red Dog Construction, with housing discrimination for designing two of the five units in a complex at 215 Inez St. in a way that makes them inaccessible to people with disabilities.
Boote and Chandler said Thursday they don’t agree with HUD’s interpretation of the act and contend that the units in question are basement spaces – not ground-floor apartments – that don’t fall under Fair Housing Act regulations.
According to a HUD news release, Montana Fair Housing Inc., a nonprofit fair housing advocacy organization, filed a complaint last spring after investigating the complex.
According to HUD’s charge, the two single-story units cannot be accessed without negotiating a flight of stairs.
HUD’s investigation also found that two units in the complex were inaccessible because they have twist-knob door handles; doorways that aren’t wide enough to allow passage by a person using a wheelchair; thermostats that aren’t in accessible locations; and bathrooms that lack reinforcements necessary to allow the later installation of grab bars.
Boote said that all the proper permitting was secured for the units, which he considers basement apartments.
The confusion between basement and ground floor definitions shows HUD has unclear regulations, Boote said, and that the department has failed to make its interpretation of the regulations known to local building departments.
They would never have followed the same design if he was told the units weren’t in compliance with the Fair Housing Act, Boote said.
HUD charging documents show the building permit for the subject property was issued on Aug. 2, 2011, and a certificate of occupancy for units A through D was issued by the city of Missoula on Feb. 8, 2012.
The building is currently fully occupied, Chandler said.
Chandler also took issue with Montana Fair Housing Inc. and HUD’s process, saying that it’s skewed against builders and property owners.
“For (Montana Fair Housing Inc.), it’s a pretty good deal. The government takes over their case and does all the prosecution of the matter,” Chandler said. “We’ve attempted to make settlements with Montana Fair Housing, but their motivation is pretty slim (to settle) because if we go to trial they have no costs.”
With fines and court fees, the case could end up costing Chandler and Boote more than $100,000, Chandler said.
Montana Fair Housing Inc. executive director Pam Bean said her organization has the option to become an intervenor if the case does go to court, and that the organization would incur costs if it pursued that route.
Montana Fair Housing reviews all permits issued by the city for units covered by the Fair Housing Act, Bean said.
“We sent them a letter indicating that they need to be aware of the federal and state fair housing laws in regards to design and construction,” Bean said.
Boote acknowledged receiving the letter, but said he was told by city regulators that the spaces were considered basement units and were not covered by the Fair Housing Act.
According to the HUD news release, a U.S. administrative law judge will hear the charge unless any party elects to have the case heard in federal district court. If an administrative law judge finds after a hearing that discrimination has occurred, it could award damages to the complainant, which is Montana Fair Housing.
Bean said most cases are solved through reconciliation.
“HUD tries very hard generally to have the parties reach a reconciliation agreement,” she said.
Boote said he and Chandler will soon enter another round of negotiations, hoping to reconcile the case out of court.