Justice Department alleged age discrimination by city, association at Santa Rosa complex
By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa and the board of a local condominium complex have reached a settlement with the federal government over allegations they violated laws designed to prevent age discrimination in housing.
The deal, if approved by a federal judge, resolves a lawsuit filed in November by the U.S. Department of Justice accusing the city and La Esplanada Unit 1 Owners Association of violating the federal Fair Housing Act.
The government claimed the city and the association discriminated against people based on their age when they tried to prevent the developer of a senior housing project from renting to non-seniors.
The case involves a 120-unit senior housing complex on Colgan Avenue that was constructed in two phases. Developer Renan Dominguez built the first 36 units of La Esplanada Condominiums as a 55-and-over senior complex. He began selling units in 2003. But, presumably in an effort to increase the pool of buyers, the age restriction was reduced to 40 years and over.
Dominguez sold the second phase of the project to an investor, who built the remaining 84 units as La Promenade Villas. But when the housing market tanked in 2007, San Francisco real estate investor Vladimir Abramov switched from selling units to renting them, and rented them to all ages.
The homeowners association and the city, which rezoned the property in an effort to increase the amount of senior housing, tried to stop him, but he filed a complaint with federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. In effect, he claimed that the second phase of the project couldn’t be required to rent units only to seniors when neither the association nor the city followed the proper rules during the first phase.
“The problem at La Esplanada was that the city had (at the request of the developer) zoned the property for seniors, but had never enforced the zoning,” fair housing attorney David Grabill said.
In a statement, the Department of Justice praised the agreement as a speedy resolution that avoids costly litigation.
“The resolution of this action is another step in the United States’ continuing commitment to protect all of its citizens and to provide fair housing opportunities for people of all ages,” said Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California.
The deal calls for both the city and the association to pay $5,000 in fines. The association’s officers and employees of the city who deal with housing developments will also have to undergo training in housing discrimination.
The city also will have to show that it has changed its zoning and code enforcement ordinances to ensure such violations don’t happen again. The zoning code will have to be changed to require senior housing developments be for age 55 and over. Developments will be required to take age surveys to ensure the rules are being followed and the city must certify those surveys.
“I think the feds wanted to send a message to cities that if you’re going to have land zoned for senior housing, you can’t just put this zoning category on it and walk away. You’ve got to monitor it and make sure it stays senior housing,” Grabill said.
City Attorney Caroline Fowler said the city responded to complaints by residents and tried to get the property owner to comply with the senior housing limitations on the property. During the DOJ investigation, it was revealed the “technical requirements” of federal housing law hadn’t been followed.
“It was never the city’s intent to discriminate against anyone,” Fowler said.
The agreement explains the owners of both phases of the complex have agreed to abandon efforts to keep the complex for seniors only.
Board president Jim Robie said the agreement “creates an unbelievable mess,” though he acknowledged one already existed. Reaction to the deal will probably be mixed, he said. Some residents will be distressed by this outcome and may move. Others who rent out their units may prefer the lifting of the restriction because the value of the units may increase, he said.
The Department of Justice chose to focus on the issue of discrimination, but Robie said they missed a larger offense.
“The bigger picture has to do with how a project that was designed and funded for senior housing was circumvented,” he said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or email@example.com.)