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Broader law urged on fair housing

Monday morning, the Pinellas County Human Rights Office received a call from a man who claimed five apartment complexes had turned him away because they didn't want to rent to a man with a guide dog.

County human rights officers also had to turn him away. It's not that they didn't want to help; they couldn't, said Leon W. Russell, the county's equal opportunity officer. Pinellas County's human rights ordinance does not ban discrimination based upon disability. At least not yet.

Instead, county officials referred the man to state and federal authorities, whose codes specifically forbid such discrimination.

"We can go back to those apartments and say, "Hey, guys, you know that's against the law.' We can inform them, and we will inform people that this is against the law. But we couldn't take the complaint," Russell said.

That may change soon, however.

The county's Human Rights Office, which takes complaints throughout Pinellas, is seeking to amend the county's 1984 Human Rights Ordinance to forbid housing discrimination based upon disability. The amendment also would ban discrimination against families with children.

The County Commission will decide whether to advertise the amendment for a public hearing. If the resolution passes tonight, the amendment will be debated, perhaps in March or April, Russell said.

The county's Human Rights Office receives 20 to 25 discrimination complaints each year, some of which are investigated for the county by the cities of Clearwater and St. Petersburg, Russell said. With the proposed amendments, the number of cases likely would double, he added.

The federal government already has banned such discrimination in laws passed in 1988, 1990 and 1991, records show. But men and women who think they were victimized by these kinds of housing discrimination could turn only to state and federal investigators for help.

By including the protections in the county's code, Russell said, the County Commission would make it easier for families with children or the disabled to get help when they feel they've been discriminated against.

The amendments also would enable the county to retain about $68,000 in federal money. The county would lose money for its Fair Housing Assistance Program by failing to bar such forms of discrimination, Russell said.

"With a local agency working on a local program, the likelihood of an early settlement is better," Russell said.

George E. Locascio, a St. Petersburg handicapped advocate, agrees, assuming the county intends to enforce the amendments vigorously. Locascio said people who sell or rent housing need to know that community leaders _ at every level _ will not tolerate discrimination.

"If nothing else, this is another step in the long, hard task of education, awareness and sensitivity that is needed in order for the disabled community _ wherever they live _ to be able to participate in society fully," Locascio said.

Debra Thompson, director of administration for the Greater Clearwater Board of Realtors, said all Realtors are governed by a code of ethics that addresses the same forms as discrimination as the federal law and the proposed county amendments.

The county "may get some resistance" from condominium associations that cater exclusively to older residents, she said. But the laws allow some housing units to continue accommodating only residents who are 55 or 62 and older.

"As the real estate community, we are very supportive of fair housing laws, not only in theory, but in practice," Thompson said.