Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities v. Sullivan Associates

Decision Date12 October 1999
Citation739 A.2d 238,250 Conn. 763
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesCOMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPORTUNITIES v. SULLIVAN ASSOCIATES COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPORTUNITIES v. SULLIVAN ASSOCIATES

Callahan, C. J., and Norcott, Palmer, McDonald and Peters, JS.2 Raymond P. Pech, with whom were Philip A. Murphy, Jr., and David S. Stowe, for the appellant (CHRO in each case).

James H. Lee, for the appellee (defendant in each case).

Nancy J. Downing filed a brief for the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, Inc., et al. as amici curiae.

Opinion

PETERS, J.

Under General Statutes § 46a-64c,3 a landlord may not refuse to rent to a prospective low income tenant because that tenant will pay the stipulated rent from a lawful source of income, such as rental assistance under section 8 of the housing assistance program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development pursuant to section 8 of the National Housing Act, as amended in 1974 and codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1437f (section 8).4 There is no dispute that, unlike the federal rules regulating the section 8 program, state law makes mandatory landlord participation in the program as administered by state agencies. The principal issues in this case are whether a landlord may avoid renting to otherwise qualified section 8 tenants by requiring the use of a standard lease that deviates from section 8 lease specifications or by insisting on tenant income requirements beyond those contemplated by the state statute. We conclude that, in enacting the antidiscrimination mandate of § 46a-64c, the legislature did not intend to permit such deviations from the statutory scheme.

Patricia Hanson and Patricia Roper (the relators) filed separate complaints with the plaintiff in each case, the commission on human rights and opportunities (commission), alleging that the defendant in each case, Sullivan Associates, had violated § 46a-64c by refusing rentals to the relators because they expected to pay for their housing using their lawful source of income, namely, housing assistance from the state section 8 program. The commission filed petitions in the Housing Session of the Superior Court on behalf of the relators.5 The defendant, denying that it had discriminated against the relators, alleged that its refusal to rent was based on its uniform policy of insisting on the terms of its own standard lease and its own standard income requirements. In addition, by way of special defense, the defendant raised constitutional objections to § 46a-64c if it were applied as construed by the commission.6

The trial court, Cocco, J., concluded that the defendants had not violated the statute and, accordingly, rendered judgments on its behalf.7 The commission appealed from the judgments of the trial court to the Appellate Court, and we transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to Practice Book § 65-1 and General Statutes § 51-199 (c). We reverse the judgments of the trial court.

I FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The parties stipulated to the following facts at trial. The commission is a state agency charged with the enforcement of a number of antidiscrimination statutes including § 46a-64c. The defendant was, at the time of the incidents that gave rise to this action, a general partnership that owned four residential rental properties in the city of Bridgeport, three single-family houses and one three-family house.

The defendant followed a standardized policy in renting its properties. Once a vacancy had been advertised, the defendant's employees8 responded to telephone inquiries by asking callers to identify themselves, their coresidents and their gross household income.9 Only if the caller's answers were deemed satisfactory, and the caller agreed to pay both the first month's rent and a security deposit of two additional months' rent would the potential rental property be identified specifically and shown to the caller. If the defendant and the prospective tenant agreed to the rental, the defendant required the tenant to sign its own standard form lease. The defendant had kept rental units vacant for as long as six months rather than rent those units to persons it considered unqualified. The defendant never has rented any of its properties to any recipient of section 8 assistance, because prospective tenants receiving section 8 assistance consistently have been excluded from consideration in the initial telephone screening process.

On March 2, 1994, the defendant advertised the rental of a house on Lindley Street in Bridgeport. That same day, Hanson,10 a single parent of two minor children residing in Bridgeport, inquired about the rental but was turned away when she identified herself as a person whose income was derived from section 8 assistance and the federal aid to families with dependent children program (AFDC). 42 U.S.C. § 601 et seq.11 She was told that "the landlord did not qualify for section 8 because the landlord required two months' rent as security and section 8 would not allow two months' security as the landlord understood the program." Shortly thereafter, an employee of a local fair housing office, posing as a prospective tenant relying on section 8 rental assistance, received a similar reply.12 One month later, Roper, a single parent of three children, inquired about renting the same property.13 When she disclosed that she had no income other than section 8 housing assistance,14 she was informed that she would need an annual income of $38,000 in order to qualify to rent the house.15

On June 6, 1994, the defendant ran another newspaper advertisement offering to rent the same house in Bridgeport. That day, Roper again called the defendant. Although she stated that she had a section 8 certificate sufficient to pay the rent, she again was informed that her income did not meet the defendant's $38,000 minimum income requirement. On that occasion, Roper also was told that the defendant's policy of requiring two months rent as security made the defendant ineligible to participate in the section 8 housing program. Both relators filed complaints with the commission alleging that the defendant's refusal to rent to them because of their reliance on financial assistance from the section 8 program violated the antidiscrimination provisions of § 46a-64c.16 The commission then brought the present actions on their behalf. The trial court rendered its judgments in favor of the defendant on the ground that the statute permitted the defendant to decline to rent to the relators as long as the defendant consistently conducted its rental business by use of its standard rental agreement and income requirements.

On appeal, the commission contends that the trial court improperly construed § 46a-64c with respect to: (1) the statutory requirement of mandatory section 8 lease terms; and (2) the income requirements of potential section 8 tenants. The defendant urges us to affirm the judgments, either as articulated by the trial court or on the alternate ground that a state statute mandating acceptance of tenants with section 8 income is preempted by federal law. We agree with the commission, and, accordingly, reverse the judgments of the trial court.

II THE SECTION 8 PROGRAM

Analysis of the claims of the parties requires an understanding of the section 8 housing program as it is administered in this state. The section 8 program exists "[f]or the purpose of aiding low-income families in obtaining a decent place to live and of promoting economically mixed housing...." 42 U.S.C. § 1437f (a) (1994). Section 8 is a cooperative venture between the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and state and local public housing agencies, which oversee the day-to-day operations of the program.17 While state and local housing agencies contract with landlords who own dwelling units to make assistance payments, HUD enters into annual contribution contracts with the agencies. 42 U.S.C. § 1437f (b) (1) (1994).

Although it is the local public housing authorities that actually run the section 8 program, they must do so in accordance with applicable federal regulations. See 24 C.F.R. § 882.101 (1994) (applicability and scope of section 8 regulations). The section 8 program in Connecticut also must comply with state law, including the antidiscrimination provisions of § 46a-64c.

Section 8 rental assistance is available only to persons who are classified as very low income or as low income within the meaning of 24 C.F.R. §§ 813.102 and 813.105 (1994).18 The program permits otherwise qualified tenants to rent private units19 and to pay personally only a small portion of the total rent, commensurate with their income.20 The local public housing authority contracts separately with the landlord to pay the remainder of the rent directly to the landlord. 24 C.F.R. § 882.105 (1994).

In 1994, federal regulations required a prospective tenant and landlord to use a standardized lease and addendum in order to participate in the section 8 program.21 24 C.F.R. § 882.209 (j) (1) (1994). In the present case, the defendant has raised objections to the terms in the standardized section 8 lease provisions that regulate lease termination by the landlord22 and prescribe maximum allowable security deposits.23 The maximum security deposit authorized by state law; see General Statutes § 47a-21 (b); is the same as that authorized by federal law.

III PREEMPTION

We consider first the defendant's claim of federal preemption because, if that claim were correct, it would make further consideration of the other statutory issues raised in connection with § 46a-64c superfluous. The defendant maintains that, if § 46a-64c requires landlords to accept tenants whose income includes section 8 assistance, then its provisions are preempted by the federal section 8 statute itself; 42 U.S.C. § 1437f; which makes participation in the program voluntary.24 The...

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