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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
January 20, 2006

Couple's housing bias suit could expand law to cover

Akron--A lesbian couple has filed a housing discrimination suit accusing a prominent landlord of violating their privacy, threatening eviction once their living arrangement was learned, then retaliating once the couple hired an attorney.

The suit, filed in Akron Municipal Court January 9, seeks up to $15,000 damages and asks the court to keep the landlords out of the women�s apartment except for bona fide emergencies.

The suit could also be the basis for using recent interpretations of federal laws against housing discrimination in cities whose ordinances do not protect� tenants on the basis of sexual orientation.

Christina Kennedy, 32, and Angela Hesson, 21, allege that employees of Associated Estates Realty Corporation repeatedly entered their apartment illegally, subjected them to numerous inspections, harmed Hesson�s ability to qualify for food stamps, told them they should not be a couple, and tried to evict them from their southeast Akron apartment, then harassed them when the couple retained an attorney.

The city of Akron does not include sexual orientation in its fair housing ordinances. City council failed to act on a 2000 ordinance attempt by Stonewall Akron that would have updated the city�s housing, employment and public accomodation ordinances to protect gay, lesbian and transgender residents.

Ohio equal rights laws also do not include sexual orientation.

In order to give the women standing, attorney Randi Barnabee of Bedford is bringing the case under the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals� 2004 decision Smith v. City of Salem. That ruling said that individuals may claim sex discrimination by stereotyping under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, even when they are part of a class that is not named in the act. The case which Barnabee litigated, extended protection to a transgender firefighter.

In the complaint, Barnabee states that two Ohio Supreme Court cases from 1981 and 1994 make federal interpretations of Title VII applicable to Ohio housing discrimination law.

In this case, the couple says that property managers Rhonda Schlabach and Kristen Adams disapproved of their relationship because �it failed to meet [Schlabach�s] sex stereotypes for women� including �the notion that women should only be attracted to and intimate with men, not other women.�

Kennedy and her 13-year-old daughter, who spends weekends with the couple, moved into the 240-unit complex called Hillwood II in March, under a month-to-month rental agreement including a Section 8 subsidy.

In May, Hesson moved in. According to the complaint, Kennedy was informed that anyone spending more than 14 nights per calendar year in the apartment needed to be formally added as a tenant.

During that process, Schlabach began asking about where Hesson would be sleeping, since Kennedy�s daughter occupied the second bedroom.

Kennedy informed Schlabach that Hesson was her life partner, making it clear that the couple would sleep together, only to hear Schlabach express concern and disapproval of two women living together.

Kennedy says that Schlabach suddenly did not think it was a good idea to add Hesson to the rental agreement and delayed the process, demanding documents which she subsequently lost.

�Schlabach�s delays in considering and approving Hesson�s application prevented Hesson from providing sufficient evidence of her residence (meaning: a rental agreement in her name) . . . in time to recertify eligibility to continue receiving food stamps,� reads to the complaint.

As a result, Hesson�s case was closed, and she lost the benefit.

The 29-page complaint also says that Schlabach looked for reasons to evict Kennedy, including unlawful concern over the contents of her storage area, and that she had not given �permission� for Hesson to move in.

Schlabach, according to the complaint, finally got Hesson added to the agreement in November, but only after removing Kennedy�s daughter from it, although she lives there far more than 14 nights per year.

But removing the child from the agreement caused Kennedy�s share of the rent payment to jump from $36 to $188 per month.

Schlabach tried to evict the couple because a maintenance contractor who is allergic to cats couldn�t complete his work in their apartment because of their cat.

The complaint also describes numerous times when maintenance contractors were sent into the apartment without notification, once catching the couple in bed, and another time, catching Kennedy alone and in the shower.

According to the complaint, the couple was given notice December 19 that state inspectors would be inspecting random apartments. The couple�s was chosen. They were told to move their bed away from the bedroom window to facilitate escape in case of a fire, which they did the same day.

The next morning, the couple was awakened by a maintenance man who unlocked their apartment door and opened their closed bedroom door �without permission or even so much as knocking.�

Kennedy complained to Adams, and was told the entry was due to an �emergency�--to see if they had, in fact, moved their bed.

Two days later, Adams entered the apartment unannounced with a second maintenance man, to check the bed again, and to take photographs of the apartment interior �without permission or explanation.�

On January 5, Hesson went to the business office to pay the rent with a money order. Associated Estates accepted the payment.

A day later, Kennedy went to the office to get copies of documents requested by Barnabee.

According to the complaint, Schlabach refused, telling her, �Well, if they are for your attorney then your attorney will have to contact our attorney to get them.�

Later that day, the couple returned home to find a three day �Notice to Leave Premises� taped to the door with a letter and the money order. The letter and notice have Schlabach�s signature.

The letter is dated January 4, but acknowledges receipt of the rent payment January 5, claiming that Associated Estates had already begun eviction proceedings.

The litigation has stopped the eviction, but not the inspections.

On January 17, the couple returned home again to find a notice attached to the door saying the landlord was going to inspect their home.

�I�ll be faxing management to advise them that my clients are not having their apartment inspected again any time soon,� said Barnabee.

The Associated Estates legal department did not respond to requests for comment, nor would the company provide its equal housing opportunity statement. The company, headquartered in the Cleveland suburb of Richmond Heights, has 74 properties throughout Ohio and operates in 11 states.

The case has been assigned to Akron Municipal Judge Annalisa S. Williams.


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