The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development has charged the Mobile franchise of a home-staging company with discrimination.
Showhomes of Mobile and Baldwin counties was charged about four years after a woman was not allowed to stay in a home because she had more than two children, according to a statement from HUD.
“Rules that limit the number of children in housing violate the Fair Housing Act,” HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Anna María Farías said in the statement. “Today’s action reaffirms HUD’s commitment to protecting the right of families with children to obtain the housing of their choice.”
The action was a response to a complaint filed in May 2014 by a woman who said she was denied a rental because she had more than two minor children. According to the charge, an employee at the Showhomes franchise told the woman, who was trying to become a “home manager,” having three children made her ineligible because of the nature of Showhomes’ business.
After the complaint was filed the Mobile-based Center for Fair Housing conducted a test. The tester was given the same information. HUD just recently notified the Showhomes franchisee of the charge.
Showehomes owner Bert Lyles said the former franchisee doesn’t believe the allegations are valid. For one, Lyles said, the charge is based on a one-minute phone conversation with a Showhomes Mobile employee. Showhomes could not find a record of the phone call in question.
Also, Lyles said Showhomes is a staging company employing what are referred to as “home managers,” as opposed to a full-fledged rental company.
Home managers live in homes for sale and pay a reduced rent, or “monthly fee,” as it’s described on the company’s website, but must keep the house properly staged.
“The whole context is different than a rental,” he said. “Our advertising reflects that. This is not a rental, it’s an opportunity … .”
According to the charge, HUD makes no distinction between a rental property and a home-staging property.
“It is unlawful to refuse to rent or negotiate to rent or otherwise make unavailable or deny a dwelling to any person because of familial status,” the charge states. “It is unlawful to discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions or privileges of rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of familial status.”
Lyles said the company does not restrict the number of children a home manager can have in a house, but a manager has to be ready to “show a home on 30-minute notice.”
“To my knowledge, across all franchises, we’ve always supported compliance with fair housing because it’s the right thing to do,” Lyles said. “We place people who can meet our requirements.”
Lyles said the complaint is against the former franchisee. The company has offered assistance, but she is the one who must respond to the charge. The current Mobile franchisee no longer offers the home manager service. Lyles said Showhomes requires franchise owners to offer all the company’s services, but added it is not enforced.
In the interest of full disclosure, Lyles is a minority investor in Lagniappe.
This is story was updated at 10:07 a.m. on Monday, July 9 to clarify comments made about the home manager program.