A Bucks County couple’s simple act of applying for an apartment in 2019 has resulted in a $450,000 settlement and new policies to prevent housing discrimination at about 10 apartment complexes in three states.

The couple applied to the Aspen Grove Apartment Homes in Warminster Township, seeking a nice, affordable home within walking distance of a grocery store and other neighborhood amenities. But the family’s application was rejected, even though the husband had a strong credit score and the family had enough income.

That’s because the wife, a lawful U.S. resident who had recently arrived from Colombia, did not have a Social Security number, and the apartment required every adult to have one to apply.

The Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit fair housing agency that serves residents in the Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley regions, investigated policies at the apartment complex, which is owned by Philadelphia-based CM Bucks Landing 120 LLC and managed by Brooklyn-based Residential Management Inc. The nonprofit determined that the policies at Aspen Grove and other apartments under the same property manager discriminated against certain groups of people in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.

The Housing Equality Center and the couple filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2020, and the parties signed a settlement agreement at the end of August. The department approved the agreement last month.

Rachel Wentworth, executive director of the Housing Equality Center, said recently that many housing providers don’t understand the seriousness of fair housing violations, and cases such as the one in Warminster show other operators that there are financial consequences.

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In the most straightforward discrimination cases, housing providers apply different rules to different people. But in this case, “multiple policies have a discriminatory effect on the protected classes even though the policies as stated apply to everybody,” Wentworth said.

Residential Management’s rule requiring Social Security numbers will most often bar immigrants, a group less likely to have them. The Fair Housing Act protects against discrimination based on national origin.

Following Residential Management’s policies, its properties also rejected anyone with any kind of criminal record, according to the Housing Equality Center’s complaint. HUD has determined that broad criminal record bans violate the Fair Housing Act and result in discrimination against groups that are more likely to have records because of systemic racism in the justice system.

Residential Management’s properties also limited how many people could occupy apartments beyond local restrictions, which the Housing Equality Center argued discriminates against larger households, which tend to be families with children. The Fair Housing Act outlaws discrimination based on race and familial status.

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“We’ve certainly seen all three of these types of policies from other rental housing providers in the region,” Wentworth said.

According to the settlement agreement, the apartment owner and the property manager “deny they engaged in any discriminatory housing practices but agree to settle the disputed claims.” The lawyer representing the companies did not respond to requests for comment.

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As part of the settlement, the property management company is changing its policies at its properties in Warminster; New Brunswick, N.J.; and Florida. The property manager and the owner of Aspen Grove agreed to pay $450,000 for damages, legal fees, investigation costs, and fair housing education, with the majority of the money going to the Bucks County couple.

Wentworth said that in this type of case, housing providers typically “say they have a nondiscriminatory reason for whatever the rule is.” But she said it’s important that both housing providers and renters know that policies that may seem neutral on their face can have discriminatory effects in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

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The Housing Equality Center worked with CM Bucks Landing 120 and Residential Management to come up with identity documents that can be alternatives to Social Security cards, new occupancy standards, and a criminal background policy that considers only certain types of felony convictions.

The nonprofit helps train housing providers, and last week it launched a website that teaches them about their responsibilities under the Fair Housing Act.

Aspen Grove in Warminster offers apartments ranging from studios to three bedrooms and amenities that include a playground and gym. Advertised rents start at $1,100 for a studio and $1,450 for a three-bedroom apartment.

After the Bucks County couple was rejected from Aspen Grove, the family found a less-desirable apartment in another complex that has a lot of stairs that are difficult to navigate with two young children and is farther from amenities — a problem for the wife, who doesn’t have a car, Wentworth said.

“It really decreased her independence in terms of being able to access herself the things the family needed,” Wentworth said. “They had a lot of inconvenience and had to settle for a much less suitable apartment due to the denial at Aspen Grove.”

Wentworth said she’s not sure what the family plans to do next, but clients who reach these kinds of settlements often use the proceeds to purchase a home.

“It’s often their feeling that after experiencing discrimination in rental housing, that they want the autonomy of owning their own home,” she said.