Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part series on housing discrimination in Ashland.
Steven Maryanoff thought he had found the perfect apartment to rent on Gresham Street, upon moving to Ashland. But the housing arrangement fell apart, he said, when he disclosed he had a disability.
The landlords were interested in renting the two-bedroom unit to Maryanoff — until they learned he was legally blind, he said.
"They actually told me that they decided not to rent to me because I was legally blind," he said. "I told them I didn't think that was an adequate reason why not to rent to me, and they said something like, 'We can rent to whomever we want to rent to.'"
That was three years ago. Since then, it does not appear housing discrimination — particularly against the disabled — has abated in the city, said Moloy Good, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon.
Under state and federal fair housing laws, it's illegal for landlords to discriminate against people with disabilities. But some Ashland landlords either aren't aware of the laws or choose not to follow them, Good said.
"Most of the time it just seems like there's a landlord that doesn't understand what the rules are or what the law is," he said. "But there are some who, once it's explained to them, are just like, 'I don't care and I just don't want you here because you need this or you have this.' That still exists as well, the not wanting people because they're disabled."
Between 1995 and 2008, the Fair Housing Council received seven complaints from Ashland residents who said they had been discriminated against by landlords because of a disability.
Those complaints are believed to be just the "tip of the iceberg," the housing council said, citing a National Fair Housing Alliance study that estimates fewer than 25 percent of discrimination complaints are reported to an agency with the authority to take action on behalf of the victims.
During the same time period, the other agencies that track complaints — the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice and Bureau of Labor and Industries — received no valid complaints about discrimination based on disability, according to the housing council.
Oftentimes people who are discriminated against don't feel they have the time to file a complaint, or they don't know how to, said Linda Reid, the city's housing program specialist.
"The people are just looking for a place to live, so they don't generally have the time or energy to pursue this, so it's kind of sad and it can also be very trying for people," she said.
Maryanoff said he tried to file a complaint about the Gresham Street landlords, whose names and contact information he said he did not recall, but he was unsure where to direct his complaint.
"Given my vision limitations, it didn't seem cost effective as far as time was concerned to try to pursue it for too long," he said.
Tenants have a year from the time of a housing discrimination incident to file a complaint under state and federal law — but under the city's antiquated ordinance, they have only 60 days, Reid said.
The city's Housing Commission is working to update Ashland's fair housing ordinance, which hasn't been touched since it was established in 1989, Reid said.
As it stands, the ordinance is out of compliance with state and federal regulations in several areas, including discrimination against the disabled, she said. There are fewer protections for disabled people in the city's ordinance than in state or federal laws. The city's ordinance is "not as clear about protections against people against disabilities," Reid said.
"I don't think it's worded well in terms of letting the recipients of the discrimination know what options they have beyond just contacting the city," she added.
Landlords must adhere to the widest-reaching fair housing laws, which are the state and federal laws in Ashland, Good said. Nonetheless, the city's fair housing ordinance should be updated, he said.
"It doesn't make a big difference in terms of enforceability of the law," Good said, "but it is good for Ashland to update its law because it's sort of a statement from the city, saying, 'Within our borders these acts will not be tolerated.'"
The City Council is scheduled to vote on the updated ordinance this fall, said Brandon Goldman, senior planner with the city.
The update is part of the city's efforts to reduce housing discrimination in Ashland. Since the results of a housing council study conducted in Ashland were announced to the public in April, many residents have expressed outrage at the high rate of discrimination cited in the study.
Mayor John Stromberg has called on residents to learn about fair housing laws and report discrimination. State and federal fair housing laws prohibit discriminating against someone based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, familial status, national origin, marital status and source of income.
The study, commissioned by the city, showed a "shockingly high rate of discrimination" against blacks seeking to rent housing in Ashland. The report, completed in June, found that six of nine landlords expressed racial bias when showing a rental to a black tester.
Researchers also found that three of seven testers with children and three of seven with disabilities, or about 43 percent in each category, received discriminatory treatment.
Christine Dodson, the city's senior program director, said the Senior Center handled a case of housing discrimination because of a disability this year. A man in his 90s, whose eyesight was failing, requested accommodations be installed in his apartment, such as a handrail, but his request was initially denied, she said.
Under fair housing laws, landlords are required to install wheelchair ramps, railings or other accommodations for tenants with disabilities. Tenants must pay to have the accommodations installed and uninstalled, and the accommodations must be minimal enough that the housing can be restored to its original condition after the tenant leaves, Goldman said.
Landlords must also allow disabled people to live with their service animals, such as seeing-eye dogs, even if pets are not normally allowed in the housing.
Maryanoff, who does not use a walking stick or a seeing-eye dog, said he wasn't seeking any accommodations to the apartment on Gresham Street. After another housing situation fell through due to what he believes was discrimination based on his disability, he decided to give up on finding a place to rent.
He spent several weeks staying at friends' houses and, in late 2007, finally bought his own home on Oak Street, where he still lives. He said he remains disheartened by his experience on Gresham Street.
"I thought that people here in Ashland were somewhat different and more compassionate than you find in the general scope of life, so I was sadly disappointed," he said. "That was one feeling I had. The other one was moral outrage."
For more information or to file a housing discrimination complaint, contact Linda Reid, the city's housing program specialist, at 541-552-2043 or the Fair Housing Council at 800-424-3247.
Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.