Finders, fixers.

toddler outside house - fair housing, familial discrimination and massachusetts lead law

Landlords are unabashedly (and illegally) discriminating against families with kids

Renting an apartment in Boston is expensive and difficult enough already (though maybe not so expensive and difficult as buying a home here). But trying to find a rental with young kids in tow? That’s damn near impossible – and it can leave parents feeling helpless and vulnerable.

That’s what I learned while writing this piece on rental discrimination for the Boston Globe. Families with kids – particularly young kids – face rampant discrimination in the Boston area, according to Jamie Langowski, assistant director of the Housing Discrimination Testing Program at Suffolk University Law School.

Kara Oliviere shared her story of being ignored, given the runaround, or flat-out denied apartments anytime she mentioned her one-year-old son. It took her almost a year to find an apartment, despite the fact that her credit, savings, and income were all far superior compared to when she used to rent apartments without hassle as a single woman.

[You can read the story here; I’ll wait for you.]

The landlord’s point of view

The primary reason some landlords resist renting to families with kids is fear of getting stuck with a costly lead abatement. Massachusetts lead law requires that landlords make a unit and any common areas lead safe if a child under the age of 6 will live there — and that includes paying for alternative housing while the work is being done. This can easily top $10,000.

But, the law is clear: It’s illegal not to rent to families with children or to offer them different rental terms — such as requiring families to live in a first-floor unit or charging them a security deposit when other tenants don’t pay one, Langowski said. She added that many rental agents tell renters with children only about new construction or units that are already deleaded. “This severely limits the options to families with kids, and it’s against the law.”

“People should be shown any apartment they want to see,’” said Al Norton, rental manager at Unlimited Sotheby’s International Realty in Brookline. “Real estate agents never have the ability to say to someone, ‘You can’t see this place because you have a kid under 6.’ The same way you can’t say, ‘You can’t see this place because you’re blank.’ There’s never any acceptable blank to do that.”

Still, Norton said, “there are a lot of landlords and agents out there who do their best to skirt or circumvent the rules.”

And in fact, I heard from a few of them — I got an earful from several landlords who read the story.

One emailed me complaining about the red tape in Massachusetts and bemoaning a lack of personal responsibility among tenants:

“My next tenant, if there ever is one, will probably not have young children, and be at least 40 years old — so they know how to clean a drain and replace a smoke detector or CO detector battery. Really!”

Another, who was a landlord in Newton for 35 years, blatantly admitted to discrimination:

“When the lead paint law came into effect, we no longer rented to people with children. The cost to remove all the lead paint on the classic Victorian woodwork made it both uneconomic and unaesthetic.”

Well, ok… but that’s illegal, dude. However, the most flagrant email I received was from a guy named Andrew in Winthrop:

“Hi John, interesting read, I believe that you have omitted the fact that tenants can just decide not to pay rent and not be required to leave if they have children.

How would you like if you saved your whole life for a house, and the mortgage would be paid by a % of rent. Then your tenant used the child as a tool against you, and lived in the house you worked for for free for 9 -12 months.

I would NEVER NEVER NEVER rent to a tenant w/ a child. Or, a single female, or someone w/o FT employment.”

Well then! Just so everyone’s clear, that’s entirely illegal. Except the full-time employment part — landlords can absolutely require that you hold down a job (or have good credit) and that the monthly rent won’t eat up more than a certain percentage of your income.

Now, I’ve been a landlord. I can understand the resistance to some degree: When we first purchased our two-family, we were stretched beyond reason, and a single month of missed rent could have sunk us, to say nothing of a mandatory $10,000 lead abatement. (In hindsight, that was probably an unwise position to put ourselves in.)

However, as Norton told me, most landlords around Boston are sitting on huge piles of equity given how the housing market has soared in the past few years. Norton said using a home equity loan to delead is a no-brainer in that scenario. “It improves the value of your property in both the short and long term,” he said.

Massachusetts also offers financial help to landlords who want to (or are forced to) make their units lead compliant. Property owners are eligible for a state tax credit of $1,500 for each unit they make lead-safe. Meanwhile, owner-occupants who meet income limits (which range from $86,100 to $125,400) can obtain zero- or low-interest loans to finance lead abatement. In many cases, payback on the loan can even be deferred until the property is sold or transferred.

And yet… landlords still drag their feet about it — 40 years after the lead law was passed.

In writing the article, I spoke to Skip Schloming, the former director of the Small Property Owners Association. This Cambridge-based group advocates for small-time, “mom and pop” landlords — owners of those ubiquitous two- and three-decker multifamilies that comprise as much as 75% of the rental housing stock around Boston. (They were behind the push to end rent control in Mass. during the 1990s.)

Schloming thinks the threat from lead paint is largely overblown and can be all but eliminated with fairly simple methods — namely, keeping old lead paint in tact (especially problem areas like door frames and windowsills), using a door mat, removing shoes at the door, and frequent wet mopping and cleaning. The largest source of lead dust in a home, he says, isn’t from paint, but from the soil surrounding the house, where decades of sloughing exterior paint and lead gasoline fumes have accumulated in the top six to 12 inches of soil. Using a doormat and taking off shoes can keep the bulk of that dust from entering the house (and your body).

Now, there is probably some truth to his arguments. Most people in Boston live and grow up in old houses with lead paint, and most of them never develop elevated lead levels.

In Boston, 80% of housing was built prior to 1978, according to state data, and 85% of such homes aren’t officially deleaded. That means the vast majority of the local housing stock has lead paint.

But in 2016, only 2% of children under age 4 tested positive for lead levels above 5 mcg/dL, the federal threshold of concern. In Somerville, where 88% of housing was built before lead paint was outlawed, only 1% of children tested above 5 mcg/dL. While each of those cases is a concern with potentially tragic consequences — and about one in five children was not screened — it still appears that the bulk of kids growing up in pre-1978 homes aren’t really impacted. 

But studies have shown that low-income and minority children are at much greater risk of lead poisoning, partly because they’re more likely to be living in older and more run-down housing – places where old lead paint isn’t hidden by layers of Benjamin Moore pastels, but is peeling, chipping, and releasing dust onto the floor, where little hands can crawl on it and ingest it. 

And that’s why the lead law exists: to protect those kids. There’s no “safe” level of lead in the blood, and elevated levels can cause awful damage to the brain, kidneys, and nervous system.

The Massachusetts lead low is not a perfect one by any means, but it is THE law, and a lot of landlords are blatantly breaking it.

Owner occupants are NOT exempt

Another common defense offered by landlords – and it’s a misconception – is that owner occupants of 2- to 4-unit multifamilies (which comprise the bulk of Boston area rentals) are exempt from fair housing laws because they live on site. The idea is that you’re permitted to use a bit more discretion as an owner occupant, since you’re essentially choosing who will live in the unit up or downstairs from you – it’s more like choosing a roommate than just a tenant.

Here’s how the longtime Newton landlord above describes it:

“I was a landlord for 35 years in Auburndale, Mass., before I retired to Cape Cod. Your article missed important facts that need to be part of your story. Massachusetts law allows owner occupied 2 and 3 unit homes to choose their tenants by whatever way they please.”

(Note: That is not true.)

“Initially, we would put a three-day ad in the Boston Globe and show all that made a phone appointment. Those interested after viewing the apartment were invited into our living room where we explained that this was a very different arrangement than renting in an apartment house with maybe 20 units. After showing the apartment and having those interested fill out an application and doing a reference check, and credit check, we would go out on Sunday night and decide which couple or person would be the best fit for the apartment. When we returned home, we called the first person on the list to see if they were still interested. If they were, we would visit them in their present apartment, looking to see if they demonstrated any problems that we did not want. If everything checked out, we would take the first month rent, a security deposit, and have them sign a lease. If number one on the list did not want the apartment, or was not what we wanted, down the list we would go. Usually it was the first or second on the list.” 

I was under more or less the same impression as this guy when we first rented out our downstairs unit. And there is some truth to the myth: Owner occupants of two-families (and only two-families, in Mass.) are exempt from some elements of federal fair housing laws.

However, according to, it is NEVER legal to discriminate based on a) race,  b) Section 8 status or public assistance, or c) because the applicants have kids and there may be lead paint.

Voices of frustrated families

Meanwhile, I also received a number of emails from frustrated renters experiencing the same kind of familial discrimination Kara Oliviere faced. Said one:

“I am exhausted of trying to find an apartment for me and my family, husband and two kids under six. We have good reasons to believe our current landlord decided not to renew our lease after 6 years of living here because of the 2 kids, we are the only family with 2 kids in a building of over 40 apartments.

We live in Brookline and I have been looking for 3 months, seen over 40 places, got rejected from 3 applications, denied showings, face bad attitudes when the agents see the kids, I most of the time have to bring them with me, an agent advised me not to bring them as my chances were just going to keep on the lower side but I can’t afford to pay a babysitter for the amount of time I have to spend on the search, it would cost me a fortune.”

Maria in Cambridge wrote:

“While I appreciate your coverage of this vexing problem for parents of young children, the idea that getting a viewing will make it harder for a landlord to discriminate is naive at best.

In this area, any given apartment will get applications from multiple renters. It’s very easy for them to simply choose the applicants without children… and since the applications always ask about children and pets, they can rescind the offer for lying on the application if you don’t disclose your kid.

We tried to move out of our apartment for 4 years after our daughter was born, looking in Cambridge/Somerville/Watertown/Belmont. The apartment we were renting in Cambridge was lead-encapsulated, but tiny. I would call and disclose the kid, offer to encapsulate myself if necessary, and not get a call back; my husband would call without mentioning the kid and get a response right away. There were occasional listings for lead-free or lead-safe apartments, but they were always out of our price range.

We went to one showing in Somerville where we just showed up with the kid in a stroller and the landlord flat-out said “I’m not renting to people with kids! There’s too much lead paint!” I told him that was illegal and reported him, but nothing happened.

Eventually our circumstances changed and we were able to buy. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure we would have been stuck in our little apartment until she turned 6.”

It’s awful to feel helpless to protect your child

What the landlords above – and so many others – are missing is that a home is different from other transactions. As Norton told me, owning rental property is not a safe or typical investment. You don’t just buy it and forget it like a share of Apple stock, and landlords who can’t deal with the headaches should just sell their property and dump the money into a CD.

The feeling of helplessness when you cannot provide for your child – when you must fear the very real possibility of homelessness because you’re being unfairly denied a place to live – is absolutely haunting to me.

As a parent, you need to able to protect your child and provide for their basic needs. Imagine a grocer not selling you food when you’re hungry, just because your kid might get sick in aisle 7 or sue the store.

It’s clear there’s a problem in our system. Perhaps the lead law needs to change, to make it easier for landlords to comply with it. Perhaps there ought to be more financial incentives to de-lead, or better enforcement of the existing discrimination law.

But denying otherwise qualified families a place to live just because they might present a headache for you down the road is a disgusting practice that needs to stop.

If you feel that you’ve been discriminated against in your housing search, Langowski says you should report it right away – you may even be entitled to damages. Alert the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, local fair-housing organizations (such as the Boston Fair Housing Commission for Boston residents), the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, or a discrimination testing program like the one at Suffolk Law (call their hotline at 617-884-7568).

Jon Gorey • July 3, 2017

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