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Opening apartment doors closed to kids

Anyone trying to find an apartment that accepts children will not be surprised by the conclusions of a recent US Housing and Urban Development survey. It shows that, nationwide, 26 percent of all rental units have "no children" policies, and many that do accept children have restrictions on the number, sex, or age of the youngsters.

These restrictions affect roughly 2 million families, says Elizabeth Roistacher, HUD's deputy assistant secretary for policy development and research.

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The report adds that restrictive rental policies also may mean that families may be split up, with children being sent to live with other relatives, until parents can find some place for them to live, or doubling up with another family , leading to increased family tension.

"There is also a real feeling among people who are hit by this that society thinks there's something wrong in having children," Dr. Roistacher says. "Children react to this. They are hurt, they're parents are hurt. They're all really disturbed by the fact that children don't seem to be wanted."

The problem is growing worse. The number of rental units unavailable to families with children is rising. And with more apartment buildings switching to "no children" policies, and more one-bedroom rather than multi-bedroom units being built, it is likely to continue to rise.

In Massachusetts, state law prohibits such discrimination in dwellings with three or more units. Vilations carry a fine of up to $1,000. Even so, discrimination against families with children is "the biggest problem right now for housing," according to a spokesman for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Because of exemptions under the law, he says, very few rental units actually are affected.

The California-based Fair Housing for Children Coalition (FHCC) conducted a survey of apartment ads in newspapers. In Los Angeles, 71 percent allowed no children of any age, and Fresno, San Diego, and San Jose showed 53 percent, 65 percent, and 70 percent respectively.

"We've dealt with people who are living with six kids in a station wagon on the Santa Monica pier, and a woman living with two kids in a tent on the beach," says FHCC executive director Dora Ashford.

FHCC also gets calls from pregnant women worried that they will lose their apartment when they have their baby.

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"We had a recent case of a couple in Santa Monica who had a baby a few months ago. They got a letter from [the apartment management company] saying, 'Congratulations on your new baby -- and we would like you to find another place to live in 60 days.'"

But when FHCC lawyers took the case and pointed out that the family would not be violating any occupancy codes, and that a local ordinance forbade age discrimination, the family was allowed to stay.

The geneerally tight housing market is a major cause of the problem, Ms. Ashford says.

"As long as the housing crisis worsens [the discrimination problem] will, too. Families with children are in a worse position to buy their way out, as are the elderly, when housing crunches hit, so they're hurt a lot worse than other people."

Helen Blank of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) says positive steps are being taken. The HUD study, for instance, is an example of interest in the issue on the part of the federal government.

Moreover, anti-discrimination statutes have been passed in Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and the District of Columbia. The California Legislature is considering similar legislation.

The CDF has set up a national network of organizations concerned with discrimination against families with children. Its purpose, Ms. Blank says, is ". . . to communicate with each other about local ordinances they are working on , share strategy, and give each other mutual support."

Dr. Roistacher says increasing the number of available homes and apartments would help would sove the problem. She says HUD is looking into possible roles that it can take, and also would like state and local governments to get involved with the issue.

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