Justice Department sues Edmonds landlords

Discrimination practices alleged at three apartment complexes
By Brian Soergel | Mar 09, 2017
Photo by: Brian Soergel The Sytsma family of Edmonds is, from left, Ashley, Eve, Oliver and Ryan.

Three years ago, Ashley and Ryan Sytsma decided to move to Edmonds from Seattle to reduce Ashley’s commute time to her job at Rick Steves’ Europe, and because their son had recently been born.

They were taken aback when an apartment manager told them the three units she managed were for adults only. The Sytsmas took action, sensing they were being unfairly discriminated against.

The U.S. Department of Justice agreed. After a long process, on March 3 the department filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington alleging that the owners and manager of those three Edmonds apartment buildings refused to rent their apartments to families with children, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The complaint centers on three downtown apartments – at 201 Fifth Ave. N, 621 Fifth Ave. S, and 401 Pine St. – managed by Debbie A. Appleby of Stanwood.

The properties are owned by three limited liability corporations controlled by Appleby – Apple One, Apple Two and Apple Three – which are also named as defendants in the suit.

The complaint alleges that in March 2014, Appleby told Ashley Sytsma that the apartment buildings were for adults only and, therefore, not available to her family.

Appleby, who also manages a single-family rental house in the 200 block of Fourth Avenue South, did not return phone calls asking for comment this week.

The complaint also alleges that at various other times, from April 2014 to November 2015, the defendant advertised available apartments as being restricted to adults only. The family filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which conducted an investigation, issued a charge of discrimination against the defendants, and referred the case to the Department of Justice.

“Discrimination doesn’t just harm the victim,” Ashley Sytsma said on Tuesday. “It harms our community, too. Edmonds loses part of its vibrancy and warmth when landlords discriminate against children.

“I often hear of families forced to leave Edmonds because of skyrocketing rent. Policies like this makes finding housing all the harder for families. I hope our story encourages others experiencing housing discrimination to file complaints.”

The Sytsmas eventually found a place to rent in Edmonds, and now live in a house they own in the Seaview neighborhood. They have two children, Oliver and his toddler sister Eve.

The Sytsmas say they plan to donate any damages awarded in the case to a local nonprofit combating homelessness issues in Snohomish County.

’Landlords must follow the law’

“Equal access to housing is essential for all Americans, including families with young children,” U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes of the Western District of Washington said in a news release. “Particularly in our tight housing market, landlords must follow the law and make units available without discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability or familial status.”

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from denying apartments to families just because they have children,” added Acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“Many families already face challenges finding affordable housing, and they should not also have to deal with unlawful discrimination.”

Fair Housing Director Barbara Lehman of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Region X Office said that families should have the same opportunity as anyone else to obtain housing, and not have their options limited simply because they have children.

“HUD will continue working to ensure that home seekers are aware of their housing rights and housing providers meet their responsibility to comply with this nation’s fair housing laws,” she said.

The complaint seeks a court order requiring defendants to stop their discriminatory housing practices, damages for the family that filed the HUD complaint and any other families against whom the defendants discriminated because they had children, and civil penalties.

Anyone with information relevant to this case is encouraged to contact the Civil Rights Division at 800-896-7743, option 96.

The complaint is an allegation of unlawful conduct. The allegations must still be proven in federal court.

The case is being jointly handled by Trial Attorney Kathryn Legomsky for the Civil Rights Division for the U.S. Department of Justice and Assistant United States Attorney J. Michael Diaz for the Western District of Washington.

A text-message exchange

Editor’s note: The following, provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, includes a transcript of a text-message exchange between Ashley Sytsma and Debbie Appleby:

In or around March 2014, the Sytsmas had decided to move from Seattle, where they owned a home, to Edmonds, where they would seek to rent an apartment, in order to reduce their family’s commute time.

On the morning of March 31, 2014, Ashley Sytsma saw a “For Rent” sign at the complex on Pine Street and Fourth Avenue South.

She called the phone number on the sign from her cellphone, and left a voicemail stating that she was interested in renting the available apartment unit for herself, her husband, and their 1-year-old son.

Shortly thereafter, Sytsma received a text message from Debbie Appleby: “Hi, this is Apple Rentals. The residence in Edmonds on 4th rents for $1,950 per month. You can view the ad on craigslist for more information and pictures. Carport only. Very adorable inside. Hardwoods, modern interior paint colors, new paint to come on the exterior. Must be able to take care of the yard. Thanks for your interest! Let me know if I may be of further assistance. 215 4th Ave. S, Edmonds. This is the only one that’s not an adult building.”

Sytsma: “The house looks perfect, but with utilities not included, that’s too high for us. Any wiggle room on the price? I see you have a 2 bedroom on 621 5th Ave. S for $1,400 in an active building. Is that available?”

Appleby: “All apartments are adult only. On the house, they would wiggle only $50 a month less.”

Sytsma: “For your apartments, do you have official senior community exemption status? As a property manager, you must know that discriminating against children is illegal.”

Appleby: “We have a child policy which is the right of the landlord.”

Sytsma: “No. That is not your right. You only have a right if you’re officially exempt as a senior community. Do you fall within that exemption? I’m on WA State’s Human Rights Commission’s website now, and it states ‘unless a building … qualifies as housing for older people (55+), it may not discriminate based on familial status.’ Do you ... qualify? We really will be great tenants, and unless you can prove that you qualify, I will pursue this. Would you instead like to meet me and show me the great apartment properties you have available?”

There were no further texts from Appleby.




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