Families with children face housing discrimination

Linda and Gregory Goetz are the parents of three boys, including seven-month-old twins. Last January they began looking for a larger apartment in suburban Chicago, one with three bedrooms. Everywhere they went, they were turned away.

''When we asked, 'Why can't we rent?' '' Mrs. Goetz says, ''the answer was always, 'You have too many children.' ''

That's an answer more parents are hearing these days. Forced into the rental market by low housing starts and high interest rates, couples and single parents across the country are finding apartment rules that restrict the number of children allowed according to the size of the apartment - and even prohibit them altogether.

According to a study done in 1980 for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), children are excluded from 20 percent of apartments in the United States.

''No-children practices are most likely to be found among units built during the 1970s,'' the study reports. ''One in 3 units built since 1970 don't accept children.''

In addition, the study says, families with children look longer for housing, pay more, and usually wind up living in lower-quality apartments. And the more children parents have, the harder it is for them to rent.

After the Goetzes found the apartment and location they wanted and were rejected because the complex allows only two children in those units, Mrs. Goetz called the Illinois Department of Human Rights. She asked if this practice was illegal; the agency said it was. Since mid-1980, it has been against the law in Illinois to refuse to rent to parents because they have children under 14 years of age. The department also thinks the law prohibits such restrictions as the Goetzes encountered.

The lawyer for the apartment complex, Shelly Kulwin, disagrees with that interpretation.

''We didn't violate the law, because we're not refusing to give her an apartment; we're refusing to give her a specific apartment. If that does constitute a violation, I have a constitutional problem with the law. And that is, it's overly broad. Where does it stop? How many children can you finally say 'no' to?''

Despite that objection, in July the Department of Human Rights asked a Cook County Circuit Court judge to order the complex - Somerset Apartments in Hinsdale - to reserve a three-bedroom apartment for the Goetzes. The judge did so, but the family still hasn't moved in. Their case is now before the Illinois Human Rights Commission, and it will come to trial in December. Meanwhile, the Goetzes continue to live in their two-bedroom apartment, sleeping one child in the living room.

''It's been very frustrating,'' Mrs. Goetz says. ''What else can you feel? You begin to feel like you've done something wrong by having a third child.''

Mr. Kulwin argues that his client is not against children. In fact, almost half the complex's 1,600 residents are children. He and many other managers around the country see the issue as one of property rights.

''Owners and managers of property have to have some discretion in how they're going to manage the property,'' Mr. Kulwin says. ''We feel we have an obligation to the neighborhood to keep the place clean - well occupied, yet not overcrowded.''

Somerset offered to rent the Goetzes a $500 town house instead of the $395 apartment they wanted, but for the Goetzes that was unaffordable.

''What gives them the right to force us into spending several hundred dollars more in rent to keep their buildings free of children, or to limit them?'' Mrs. Goetz asks.

Mr. Goetz holds down two jobs, and Mrs. Goetz works weekends to meet family expenses.

Housing discrimination against parents is a fairly new legal area. Only nine states, including Illinois, have enacted legislation outlawing it. The District of Columbia and a handful of cities have passed similar statutes. Residents of California got a big boost from the state Supreme Court earlier this year when it ruled that California's civil rights act, which prohibits ''arbitrary discrimination,'' applies to parents in the rental market.

But Marilyn Kuhr, a staff attorney with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, thinks federal civil rights legislation could be applicable, because the issue has some racial overtones. Ms. Kuhr says that most of the child-exclusion complaints the department has received in the past year have been made by blacks.

''A policy excluding children . . . is often used as a screen for racial or national-origin discrimination,'' she says. ''I think it's also possible that the practice of excluding children, even if the landlord does not intend to discriminate, is something that has disparate impact on those groups, because their birthrate and family size are larger.''

So far, there hasn't been a big push for national legislation to deal with housing discrimination against parents. When HUD released its report, it said states and cities are best equipped to handle it. And some advocate groups that have rallied around the issue, including the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., seem ambivalent about the necessity for a federal law. As a spokeswoman at the fund put it, ''Any way it gets done is good.''

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