Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a nonprofit that advocates for fair housing laws, is suing a Richmond landlord over allegations that she discriminates against potential renters with children or disabilities.

Filed after an almost two-year investigation by HOME, the lawsuit details behavioral patterns the organization says prove Teresa Vetter violated federal and state fair housing laws that safeguard people who have a disability — a protected class the National Fair Housing Alliance said accounts for about half of the more than 30,200 discrimination complaints filed in 2018.

In 2019, HOME saw 173 complaints of disability discrimination and 15 of familial status. HOME CEO Heather Crislip said she has seen an uptick of cases involving the refusal to rent to families with children in the last few weeks. But it’s rare to get complaints as explicit as Vetter’s statements, she said.

“You can see in the complaint that she knows what the law is,” Crislip said. “She just thinks she’s able to skirt around it.”

Messages left with Vetter seeking comment Tuesday were not immediately returned.

This suit marks one of the first legal actions HOME has taken during the coronavirus pandemic in Richmond, a city with increasing rent prices and the second-highest eviction rate among like-sized cities in the country, which has an inequitable impact on low-income people of color. Discriminatory practices further limit rental options, creating another landmine of barriers to housing accessibility, Crislip said.

As a private fair housing organization, HOME has the ability to sue if they think housing discrimination has taken place. After receiving a tip about Vetter in December 2018, HOME did what it has done for almost 50 years: test. The nonprofit sends in “testers” that represent a protected class it’s concerned a landlord might be discriminating against and conducts these trials until a pattern is or isn’t determined. With Vetter, HOME said it was.

According to the complaint, Vetter showed preference for renters who weren’t disabled or did not have children younger than 18. She discouraged them from applying or would raise the rental price once learning of their status. At one point, she allegedly criticized a prospective tenant for having too many children, adding that they couldn’t afford them.

Vetter also allegedly told a tester that she didn’t rent upstairs units to families with children younger than 18, restricting families to only first floor apartments due to “children [making] terrible tenants.”

In the four recordings posted to HOME’s website, obtained by the eight HOME testers who had two separate interactions with the landlord each, Vetter can be heard saying that she doesn’t rent to people who have Section 8 Housing Vouchers or are on welfare — only “good people.” As of July 1, that practice will be illegal in Virginia. The Virginia General Assembly this year added a new protection to the Virginia Fair Housing Law that applies to any landlord who has at least five rental units.

Vetter owns a total of six off Chamberlayne Avenue. Still, in a recording, she allegedly said that even if that law passed, she wouldn’t follow it. “I mean being a private landlord as opposed to an apartment complex, there are things that I can subtly just disregard certain laws like that,” Vetter said.

That’s not how it works, said Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy at Virginia Poverty Law Center, adding that private or not, landlords aren’t exempt from discrimination laws. But some practices, such as discriminating on the basis of disability, can be more subtle than other forms, such as not accepting social security income as rent payment.

The complaint claims Vetter did just that, meaning she doesn’t rent to people who are on disability. She allegedly added that depression doesn’t count and there’s “not a darn thing wrong with them.” Under CDC guidelines and federal and state housing law, mental illness is considered a disability.

A court date has not been set and Vetter has not responded to the suit, according to HOME. The organization is asking a judge to award compensatory damages for conducting the investigation, which cost $18,186.74.

This story has been updated to correct the name of the National Fair Housing Alliance. 

smoreno@timesdispatch.com(804) 649-6103

Twitter: @sabrinaamorenoo

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