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Landlords flouting laws by barring families with children as tenants

J’cans urged to report discriminatory clauses when house hunting

Published:Monday | March 6, 2023 | 12:05 AMAsha Wilks/Gleaner Writer

The search for rental of residential property has become increasing difficult for more Jamaicans, who believe that the requirements set by some landlords, such as requests for bank statements and relationship or religious conditions, are too...

The search for rental of residential property has become increasing difficult for more Jamaicans, who believe that the requirements set by some landlords, such as requests for bank statements and relationship or religious conditions, are too intrusive.

A number of home-seekers, who spoke with The Gleaner on condition of anonymity, said while the practice, which they have described as discriminatory, was not new, the stipulations have become more alarming.

One female tenant based in St Ann told The Gleaner that during her search, she came across potential landlords who insisted that she should be a Christian, preferably a Seventh-day Adventist, and that fornication would not be allowed on the properties.

She was also asked to provide proof of church membership.

On another occasion, a prospective landlord inquired whether she was single because if she had a significant other, this would increase the likelihood that she would become pregnant and have children, and that they did not want children on the property.

It was made clear that in the event that she became pregnant, she would have to move out.

“I feel like these requests are way overboard and some are just downright ridiculous. These stipulations don't have anything to do with a tenant's ability to pay their rent in full and on time. Most rentals are overpriced, especially in the Ocho Rios area, and don't have some common amenities like hot water, washing machine area, burglar bars,” she said.

The woman said that such stipulations “greatly discouraged” her and that she simply tried to find a place where she could be comfortable while hoping for the best.

“I believe the rental market is not regulated and landlords do whatever they please with no repercussions. Some landlords ask for three months' pay slips, which makes sense, but I believe proof of income of job is enough,” she said.

Another house-hunter, who went to view a property advertised for rent at $45,000 monthly in Old Harbour, St Catherine, said she was told to get a recommendation letter from her previous landlord to prove that she would be a good tenant.

She believed she was discriminated against because she worked at a business process outsourcing company and had remarked that her money wasn't “good enough” even after she supplied him with pay slips showing a monthly salary of more than $90,000.

“It makes no sense because if you are looking someone to rent the place, I understand if you want to see someone's pay slip to know if they can pay rent, but why do you want to know if I'm a lesbian, gay, Christian or if I have friends?” she continued, noting that the landlord was prying too far into her personal life.

“People like them just not to rent places,” she protested.

First vice-president of the Realtors Association of Jamaica (RAJ) and attorney-at-law Gabrielle Grant Gilphin-Hudson informed The Gleaner that the RAJ “has zero tolerance for discrimination”, and does not support or facilitate discrimination of any kind.

She said that the association's code of ethics states that all realtors “shall not print, display or circulate any statement or advertisement with respect to selling or renting of a property that indicates any preference, limitations or discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity”.

Gilphin-Hudson further noted that she did not see any reasonable basis upon which landlords can enforce these stipulations.

“The RAJ would actively encourage persons who have been denied opportunities to rent properties on the basis of discrimination, including discrimination against persons who have children living with them, to report this to the Rent Assessment Board of Jamaica (RAB) for recourse,” she said.

The RAB provides assessment of rental premises and dispute resolution between landlords and tenants. The board is the only body with the jurisdiction to initiate legal proceedings for illegal increases in rent, excess rent (security deposits) and arrears of rent.

Landlords are prohibited by the Rent Restriction Act from discriminating against prospective renters because they have children. Section 4(a) of the act states that “a person shall not – as a condition for the grant, renewal or continuance of a tenancy of any controlled premises consisting of a dwelling house – require that no children shall reside with the tenant in that dwelling house”. Anyone found guilty of violating this provision is liable to a fine of up to $1,000 or a prison term of up to 12 months. In the event of a second or subsequent conviction, the fine can be as high as $2,500 or a prison sentence of 18 months.

This is the only issue of discrimination that the legislation addresses.

Gilphin-Hudson continued that landlords and tenants should bear in mind that under the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of Jamaica, the Constitution protects citizens' right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, place of origin, social class, colour, religion or political opinions.

Prospective tenants and/or realtors cannot force a landlord to accept an offer to rent as this is entirely up to the landlord, she noted, however, but highlighted that “the onus is currently on the prospective tenant to prove there was discrimination”. It could be challenging for a potential tenant to prove this in court and/or establish a basis for compensation as a result of the discrimination.

“From a practical perspective, it would be useful if there was an updated legal framework around the issue that provided clear rules and guidelines for landlords, recourse to victims of discrimination, and imposed penalties or fines on landlords or other property owners who engage in discriminatory practices,” she added.

A St Andrew-based landlord, who rents a section of the property at which she resides, told The Gleaner that she understands why some landlords would impose such restrictions as they are “necessary for security of property”.

She reasoned that children could cause added damage to the property at the expense of the landlord and does not believe landlords should not be charged for denying a potential tenant for this reason as they have the right to enforce their own rules and restrictions.

“At the end of the day, they are the ones paying taxes for the land,” she told The Gleaner.

“Some are too extreme,” the Christian landlord said of the stipulations, adding, “there can be limits on company, but Christians aren't the only people looking for a place to rent.”

The landlord further encouraged others to be more compassionate and to be more lenient when seeking potential tenants.

Several calls placed by The Gleaner since last Tuesday to Rose Bennett-Cooper, chairman of the RAB, to get comments on the practices have gone unanswered.