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Veterans get protected status in Chicago's fair housing ordinances

Mona Noriega, chair of Chicago's Commission on Human Relations, after testifying Tuesday about an ordinance that would add military status as a protected category under city's Human Rights and Fair Housing Ordinances. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Veterans, active military personnel, reservists and National Guard members would become the 17th “protected class” in Chicago’s Fair Housing and Human Rights ordinances, under a mayoral crackdown advanced Tuesday.

The City Council’s Committee on Human Relations approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ordinance, which is intended to prevent what a top mayoral aide described as a disturbing trend of discrimination against the military in the areas of housing and employment.

“Some veterans have been denied jobs by employers who are afraid that the applicant may have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and fear that they might react violently in the workplace,” said Mona Noriega, chair and commissioner of Chicago’s Commission on Human Relations.

“Some employers are reluctant to hire reservists and members of the National Guard for fear the employee may be deployed at any given time. Veterans may also face harassment on the job in the form of derogatory remarks from other employees whose job duties may change to accommodate the re-deployment of a returning service member or who may have to assume additional job duties when an active-duty military employee is on deployment.”

The housing discrimination is similarly motivated.

Landlords view vets as “potentially troublesome tenants” because of the “perception they may have PTSD,” Noriega said.

Other landlords are reluctant to rent to reservists and members of the National Guard “out of concern the tenant may be deployed, leaving the apartment vacant for an unknown period of time,” she said.

Still more landlords slam the door on vets either because they oppose U.S. military involvement anywhere or they won’t rent to vets who use the G.I. Bill to pay for school and housing because they “may not be employed or are employed part-time,” the commissioner said.

The Commission on Human Relations fields and adjudicates complaints alleging discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodation, credit and bonding. Current ordinances cover 16 protected classes, including race, religion and sexual orientation.

The only existing protection for veterans involves discrimination based on military discharge status. That’s a complaint not seen since the Human Rights Ordinance was amended in 1990, Noriega said.

The ordinance approved Tuesday would also add retaliation as a “prohibited act” under the Fair Housing Ordinance. That would make it illegal for a landlord or realtor to take an “adverse action against someone for filing a housing discrimination complaint against them.”

“This discrimination may take the form of charging more rent, subjection to harassment, including sexual harassment, or imposing other unfair terms and conditions on the tenant,” Noriega said.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said he’s all for protecting vets and preventing retaliation. But he’s concerned that shady tenants may use the amendment to skip out on the rent.

“It’s one thing to have the right to file a complaint. It’s another thing to have an incentive. And I’m afraid what we’re doing right now is actually creating an incentive for a tenant to file a non-meritorious complaint in the event they are subject to eviction action due to non-payment of rent,” Hopkins said.

Deputy Human Relations Commissioner Abel Leon replied: “People will file complaints irrespective of merit, unfortunately. That’s just something that the fact-finding process will ferret out.”

Hopkins was not appeased. He argued that landlords “deserve protection, too and they don’t have it” under the mayor’s ordinance.

“People who have the skill of being able to move from rental unit to rental unit — they know where the loopholes are. They know how to play the game. They know how to run the clock. It’s to their advantage. And this is one more tool that they will be able to use to stay in a place where they’re not paying rent, causing harm to those Moms and Pops we want to protect — whether they own a condo in a Lincoln Park high-rise or a two-flat,” Hopkins said.

“I just don’t think this is fair to them. … We have to do something to prevent this from being used as an unfair advantage to people who are seeking to live rent-free.”

At Hopkins’ insistence, Leon agreed to add language clarifying that a discrimination complaint — whether bogus or legitimate — does not stay eviction proceedings based on non-payment of rent.