How tough is it for people who are deaf to find housing in Chicago? | WBEZ
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Lawsuit alleges Chicago housing providers discriminated against people who are deaf

Five Chicago-area housing providers are being sued for discrimination against people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Access Living, a cross-disability organization, conducted fair housing tests over the past couple of years. In each case, one person who was deaf or hard of hearing and one non-disabled person would call a housing provider about a listed apartment.

Ken Walden, manager of Fair Housing with Access Living, said the testers who were deaf experienced inferior treatment about 45 percent of the time.

“We don’t always sue in those cases,” Walden said. “Sometimes, we’ll offer a provider training in lieu of filing a complaint. Sometimes, we’ll retest in a few months to see if the problem continues. But the evidence in these cases was such that we wanted to raise awareness through these cases, that this is an important issue for people with disabilities.”

Access Living filed five separate lawsuits against Bill Prewitt of Best Rents, Wilmette Real Estate and Management Company, North Star Trust Company, Gilbert Realty Company and The James C. Cheng Living Trust.

For the housing test, a tester who was deaf would use what’s called an Internet Protocol Relay System, an internet-based system that allows people who are deaf or hard of hearing to communicate by phone.

In some cases, property managers repeatedly hung up on the tester, refused to give information, provided different pricing information and/or didn’t return phone calls.

The non-disabled tester would call the same property managers and had no problem getting information and was often invited to see the apartment.

Amber Smock, director of advocacy for Access Living, said as a person who is deaf, people sometimes mistake her phone call for a prank, a sales call or a robo call.

“Imagine if you were somebody who every time you called trying to get basic information you needed for living, you were hung up on. And that’s what housing discrimination looks like for people who are deaf or hard of hearing,” she said.

Many of the defendants could not be reached for comment.

However, Bill Prewitt with Best Rents defends his business. He said he’s a one man operation, and he has a diverse group of tenants.

Prewitt said it was a busy day when the tester who was deaf called and he may have gotten short with them. He said he remembers sending an email to the person saying the apartment was not equipped for a person with a disability. He also said he invited the person to view the apartment, but they didn’t show up.

In addition to damages, the lawsuit calls for the defendants to get training for fair housing and disability awareness.

Susie An is a WBEZ reporter.

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