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Rules to protect families, disabled

Pinellas County's Human Rights Office is seeking to amend the county's 1984 Human Rights Ordinance to forbid housing discrimination against families with children and against people with disabilities.

The proposal faces its first County Commission vote today and if it passes, it could come back up for final consideration in March or April, said Leon W. Russell, the county's equal opportunity officer.

The county's Human Rights Office receives 20 to 25 discrimination complaints each year, Russell said. With the proposed amendments, the number of cases likely would double, he said.

The federal government already has banned such discrimination in laws passed in 1988, 1990 and 1991, but people who think they were victimized by these kinds of housing discrimination could turn only to state and federal investigators.

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 people to get help.

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

The amendments also would enable the county to retain about $68,000 in federal money it would lose if it failed to approve the amendments.

Debra Thompson, director of administration for the Greater Clearwater Board of Realtors, said the county may get some resistance from condominium associations that cater exclusively to older residents.

But the laws allow some housing units to continue accommodating only residents above a certain age, often 55 or 62.

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