Feds sue landlord over rule

No-child policy at odds with law

Bruce Edwards, the landlord of Jayjec Apartments at 23 River St., Jaffrey, is being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act by not allowing children to live in the building.

Bruce Edwards, the landlord of Jayjec Apartments at 23 River St., Jaffrey, is being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act by not allowing children to live in the building. Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire against a Jaffrey landlord, alleging he violated the Fair Housing Act by not allowing families with children to live in the rental units.

The suit comes after Gerard Suarez, a former tenant of Jayjec Apartments located at 23 River St. in Jaffrey, made a Fair Housing Complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in June. According to the Justice Department’s lawsuit, Suarez alleged that Bruce Edwards, landlord of Jayjec Apartments, discriminated against Suarez on the basis of familial status, and therefore was not in accordance with the provisions set down by the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The housing law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin and disability. “Familial status” and “disability” were added in 1988 with the Fair Housing Amendments Act.

Following HUD’s investigation of Suarez’s complaint, the HUD secretary determined there was reasonable cause behind Suarez’s allegations, and a charge of discrimination was issued to Edwards in September. The charge was later resolved into a civil action case taken on by the Federal District Court.

According to the Justice Department’s complaint filed on Dec. 16, Edwards, who is 70 and lives in Rindge, has owned and managed Jayjec Apartments building since 1985. In addition to office space on the first floor, Edwards’ building holds two apartments and a seven bedroom “boarding house,” which consists of seven single rooms, two shared bathrooms and one shared kitchen.

According to Edwards’ lawyer, Kelly Dowd of Bragdon, Dowd & Kossayda, P.C. in Keene, Edwards did not want children in the boarding house because people frequently move in and out of the shared rooms in the inexpensive housing situation. But Edwards, Dowd says, is ready to make adjustments necessary to comply with the Fair Housing Act.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Edwards, who is also the president of the Jaffrey-Rindge Rotary Club, described the boarding house’s set up and communal living style. “It’s not particularly conducive to children,” Edwards said.

Because of this, Edwards has had the rule in the lease agreement his renters sign that no children or pets can live in the boarding house.

According to the lawsuit, Suarez signed a six month lease in October 2011, when he began living in Jayjec Apartments. As soon as Suarez moved into the building, his young daughter, who is currently two years old, began visiting two evenings a week and on weekends. For a year-and-a-half, no issues arose out of those visits, but when Suarez’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of his daughter was incarcerated for two weeks in February and March, his daughter began staying at the boarding house full-time.

According to court documents, Edwards allegedly began receiving noise complaints about Suarez’s daughter from other tenants in March. On April 12, Suarez received a letter from Edwards, which stated that because of overdue rent totaling $1,569, Suarez would be evicted on April 26. In addition, the letter also stated that Edwards would need to enforce the rules agreed to in Suarez’s lease, meaning Suarez’s daughter could no longer stay in the building. According to court documents, Edwards wrote, “I am receiving constant complaints, so you must find other arrangements for your daughter on weekends. Noncompliance will result in legal action.” The lawsuit states that Edwards also said something similar to Suarez in person around the time of the letter.

According to the Justice Department’s complaint, Suarez proceeded to find other places to spend the weekend with his daughter, including his mother’s home in Keene and his sister’s house in Stoddard. Suarez continued doing so until July, when he moved out of the boarding house. The documents state that Suarez suffered “economic and emotional costs” because of Edwards’ actions.

Five days before Suarez received his eviction notice, he was arrested by Jaffrey police on a warrant, charging him with criminal threatening and disorderly conduct. An incident had occurred that evening in which Suarez would not release his daughter to the boyfriend of his daughter’s mother at a time when the mother had custody of their daughter. Suarez was released that night on $1,000 personal recognizance, and given a May 2 court date at 8th District Court, Jaffrey. Suarez later paid a $500 fine, with $250 suspended for 12 months, pending good behavior, for disorderly conduct.

As of press time Wednesday, multiple calls to Suarez seeking comment were not returned.

As a result of Edwards’ no-child policy and how it allegedly affected Suarez, the U.S. Justice Department is seeking a court order prohibiting future discrimination on Edward’s part, monetary damages for Suarez and others harmed by Edwards’ actions, as well as a civil penalty.

Edwards did not want to comment on the lawsuit, saying he was unfamiliar with the legal territory and preferred to have his attorney speak on his behalf. According to Dowd, Edwards’ no-child policy in the boarding house came about because of the transient nature of its tenants. “He did it out of concern for protecting children,” Dowd said over the phone Wednesday.

Child welfare concerns are relevant to landlords, who are liable for the safety of their tenants, said Dowd. “Unfortunately, in our system of law, you end up with competing obligations.” Where the line falls between protecting the welfare of children and following housing law can be complicated, added Dowd, which is how someone like Edwards could step into trouble. “I don’t know that it’s obvious to somebody that they’re discriminating against somebody, if they say an environment is not appropriate for children,” Dowd said.

With regard to the case involving Suarez, Dowd said Edwards did the best he could. “I really think Mr. Edwards really tried to make this tenancy work.” Dowd added, “He’s just a New Hampshire guy trying to make common sense judgments. A lot of landlords don’t have a comprehensive grasp on what their [legal] obligations are.”

Regardless of whether Edwards did indeed violate the Fair Housing Act law or not, Dowd said his client wants to do what’s right. “We’re trying to work with the government to solve the problem and be proactive,” Dowd said. He later added, “If Mr. Suarez suffered some kind of wrong, we’ll do what we can.”

Edwards has 30 days to send in a waiver of summons, and 60 days from the date the waiver is filed to answer the Justice Department’s complaint.

Elodie can be reached by phone at 924-7172 ext. 228, or by email at ereed@ledgertranscript.com. Elodie is also on Twitter @elodie_reed.

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