LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — A federal housing agency is accusing a western Wisconsin landlord of refusing to rent a rural house to a single mother because there was no man to live with her “to shovel the snow,” but the property owner said Saturday that she was simply watching out for the woman’s welfare.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a complaint alleging that Darlene Dovenberg’s refusal to rent the home was a violation of the Fair Housing Act, which bans discrimination based on gender or family status.
“Fairness dictates, and the Fair Housing Act requires, that housing decisions not be based on outmoded stereotypes of people’s `place’ in our society,” HUD official John Trasvina said in the statement this week.
The HUD complaint said Dovenberg refused to rent a house in rural Bangor because the female applicant didn’t have a man “to shovel the snow.” The agency said Dovenberg later rented the home to two men. The complaint was filed on behalf of the female applicant, whose name wasn’t released.
Dovenberg told The Associated Press that the agency mischaracterized her intentions. The home is in a remote area of La Crosse County that gets poor cellphone reception and unreliable landline service, she said, and she was worried about the woman’s safety.
Dovenberg said she thought she was doing the applicant a favor by steering her away from a property that could be difficult for a lone woman and child to manage during heavy snowfalls.
“I as a landlord just used good judgment and common sense,” she said during a phone interview. “I knew I wouldn’t want my daughter or anyone up there in the deserted woods to live in the winters. I felt it would not be safe, especially for someone with a small child. I felt like it’s a place that needs more adults.”
According to the charge against Dovenberg Investments LLC, an unnamed woman responded to an online ad in October 2010 for a two-bedroom home on a cattle farm in the Irish Coulee area. Dovenberg told AP she refused to even show the woman the property.
The woman told housing authorities she wanted to live in the house because the rent was cheap, it was closer to her job in La Crosse and it would have given her disabled son access to a school district that would be able to serve him better.
Dovenberg said she warned the woman that the home was at the bottom of a steep embankment. She said it has a quarter-mile-long driveway that can become so treacherous in the winter that the resident would need a vehicle with four-wheel drive, and even then there was a risk of getting stuck.
“Can you imagine renting to somebody and then having some tragedy happen?” she said. “Can you imagine having a big deep heavy snowfall, thinking you have to get out and you can’t, and here you have a child in the house? What do you do?”
She said she “begged” a HUD investigator to look at the property to understand how treacherous the conditions could be, but the investigator declined.
A phone message from AP left Saturday with a HUD official wasn’t immediately returned.
John Fischer, the former president of the Wisconsin Apartment Association, told the La Crosse Tribune for a story Saturday that there are other ways to deal with that problem. Landlords have other options for protecting their interests without discriminating, he said.
“It’s legitimate to say `You’re going to be responsible for lawn mowing. Is that going to be a problem?”‘ he said. “That is completely different from assuming the tenant can’t do it.”
A first offense of the Fair Housing Act can result in a fine of up to $16,000 plus damages and attorney’s fees. The charge filed by HUD will be heard by a U.S. administrative law judge, unless either party elects to have the case heard in federal district court.
“If I made a mistake I’m sorry,” Dovenberg said. “I just wanted to be very honest. I really felt like I did the right thing.”
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