Young Families Face Steeper Slope in Finding Apartments

Young Families Face Steeper Slope in Finding Apartments
Kara Olivere said she faced discrimination because she had a young child when she was looking to rent an apartment. Olivere, shown here with her 22-month-old son, Elliot, found one in East Arlington. Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff

It’s hard enough raising a child as it is. Throw in the stress of finding a new home and things get a whole lot dicier. Especially when landlords and real estate agents are reluctant to show apartments to applicants with young children.

If you’re one of the many individuals using Guaranteed Mass Real Estate License to obtain your credentials, then please don’t be like the agents mentioned in this article.

For Kara Olivere, a special education teacher in Arlington, MA and the single mother of a 1 year-old, finding an apartment has been nothing short of a nightmare.

In a Boston real estate market that’s already been described as ‘broken’, finding an affordable place is hard enough. In the time that Olivere has been a mother, she’s faced more difficulty than she did when she was renting with roommates.

“It’s not that it was easy,’’ she said, “but the realtors were eager to work with you — you’d practically have to beat them off with a stick.’’ Renting with a kid, meanwhile, was a nonstarter. “My profession, income, credit, and savings are all better than they’ve ever been in the past,’’ she said, “but I couldn’t even get called back, much less see a place.’’

Olivere spent more than a year looking for a place. She quickly discovered that any mention of her child was met with radio silence.

When I first started looking, I was very upfront about having a toddler,’’ Olivere said. After a while, she stopped mentioning her son, and voila, she got appointments to tour apartments. The agents would be friendly at the showing, she said, “but once I mentioned I had a child, their attitude would drastically change.’’

At an apartment showing in the beautiful Somerville area, Olivere noted to the agent that apartment was dilapidated and unsafe for her son.

The agent replied angrily by saying, “You never told me you had a son,’’ then doubling on that by saying that no nearby apartments had been deleaded either. When Olivere Olivere asked the agent for tips on finding and renting a place as a parent with a young child, he responded, ‘People with kids just buy.’

Well, if you read my most recent slew of articles then you know full well what it’s like for buyers in the Boston area — a costly hell. For a single mother of a toddler, that hell only worsens.

Currently, Massachusetts Law leaves nothing to the imagination: It’s illegal not to rent to families with children or to offer them different rental terms — such as requiring them to live in a first-floor unit or charging them a security deposit when other tenants don’t pay one, said Jamie Langowski, assistant director of the Housing Discrimination Testing Program at Suffolk University Law School. This program is one of the leading advocates for house hunters facing discrimination in the Greater Boston Area — offering a test to deliberate on cases of housing bias. According to Langowski, Olivere’s experience isn’t unique.

“There is rampant illegal discrimination occurring,’’ she said.

Her organization’s test is simple: compare the experiences of two similarly qualified individuals — one of whom diverges from the other in terms of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or familial status.

“What we’ve found is that discrimination against families with children is common,’’ Langowski said, and prospective tenants are often told right to their faces that an apartment isn’t available to them because of their kids or the presence of lead paint.

While there are other factors that discourage renters and agents from showing apartments to families with young kids, the greatest deterrent by far is the presence of lead-based paint. In the case of apartments that haven’t been deleaded, landlords are forced to pay for costly lead abatements — usually ranging anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 depending on the size of the apartment.

Currently, Massachusetts law stipulates that landlords must make a unit and any common areas lead-safe for a child under the age of 6. They are also required to pay for alternative housing while the work is being done.

And that’s a task many Boston renters just aren’t up to.

The result of their unwillingness is clear: studies have shown that low-income and minority children are at much greater risk of lead poisoning, partly because they’re more likely to be living in older and rundown housing.

Olivere was fortunate enough to stay with her family while continuing her search, but many families aren’t so privileged.

Langowski said renters who experience discrimination should immediately report their experience to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the MA Commission Against Discrimination, local fair-housing organizations, or a testing program like the one she works for.

“Families who have been discriminated against because they have children may be entitled to damages,’’ she said. Last year, the Suffolk program won a settlement of more than $22,000 for renters wrongly evicted after one family member got pregnant.

Al Norton, a realtor for a prominent real estate firm in Boston, urges house hunters to enlist the services of an ethical real estate agent. The key, he says, is finding an agent who knows the law and will advocate for you no matter the situation. Often times, Norton says, a simple email confirming that the renter is refusing someone a showing based on their having kids is often enough to get their foot in the door. It doesn’t ensure they’ll get the apartment but at least they’ll get a call back.

As for Olivere, she was able to find an apartment in East Arlington via a local Facebook group. The landlords, a young couple who live on the floor above her, said they had deleaded the entire property for their own piece of mind. Talk about lucking out.

“I’ve never heard of this in my nine months looking,’’ Olivere said. “I am so grateful.’’

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