19405697-One-hundred-dollars-front-and-back-Stock-Photo-dollar-bill-hundred copyCityVision Services, Inc. has recently filed a number of complaints with HUD under the Fair Housing Act. Those I am familiar with all follow the same pattern. Someone from CityVision calls an apartment complex asking about pet deposit policies and then mentions a therapy animal. The manager or leasing agent makes the mistake of saying all animals require a pet deposit. No one ever comes to the complex or makes a rental application, but CityVision files a Fair Housing complaint on its own behalf as a “tester.”  The apartment owners I’ve spoken with were all located in East Texas, but the extent of this particular effort by CityVision Services is impossible to tell because HUD complaints are not public.

So who is CityVision Services, Inc.? According to its website it is the successor to Lacefield & Coleman Fair Housing Advocates LLC and specializes in helping individuals who have fair housing complaints. In the LinkedIn profiles of its owners it claims to be a “23 year old non-profit,” but this somewhat misleading. The corporation was formed in August of 1992, but its mission was “To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and it does not appear that either of its current owners was involved. It forfeited it charter twice in the succeeding decades, but maintained this purely religious mission and was controlled by its founders. It was only in 2015 that the current owners took over and changed the mission to one related to fair housing. Public records do not reveal how or why, but it is certainly not true that the present incarnation of CityVision has been in business for 23 years.

So why would this “non-profit” decide to start calling apartment complexes in East Texas to ask about pet deposits and service dogs? One reason would be to sell training and consulting services to apartment owners. CityVision sells these services, so it may just be creating a market for its goods.  Another might be the payoff that can come with a HUD complaint.   The HUD investigative process is time consuming and expensive, but an apartment owner can shortcut it with a conciliation agreement that pays the complaining party some amount for “damages.” Most HUD complaints are resolved this way because the damages are almost always less that the cost of going through the investigation process. Finally, of course, there is the possibility of pure hearted advocacy for the disabled; however, this seems to be a peculiar way to achieve that goal. A letter, rather than an HUD complaint, would seem a more straightforward way to inform apartment owners of their obligations under the Fair Housing Act, particularly for a non-profit whose aim is to improve fair housing compliance.

These complaints do raise some interesting legal issues.  “Tester” standing has been recognized in the courts, but one requirement is demonstrated harm to the organization doing the testing.  If CityVision is spending most or all of its revenues making money as a tester then it would probably fail this requirement. Another issue goes to whether a single mistake by a single employee constitutes actual discrimination by a business with proper policies and training.   My guess is these issues won’t be resolved in most of these cases because they will settle.

Use of the Fair Housing Act by “advocates” out to make a buck would not be an unexpected development in the ongoing evolution of the disability litigation industry. Law firms have engaged in this business for years, finding a local plaintiff, filing dozens or even hundreds of lawsuits against small businesses and then offering to settle for a price that is less than the cost of defense, but yields a profit to the lawyers. It isn’t illegal, and of course no one can peer into the hearts of those who file these claims to see whether their motives are pure, or mercenary, or a mixture of the two.

I can say with some certainty that this kind of “advocacy” through litigation creates an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust that hurts rather than helps those with disabilities. The Fair Housing Act and ADA were intended to more fully integrate those with disabilities into the daily social and economic life of the communities they live in. The massive filing of lawsuits or complaints thwarts this goal by turning what should be a cooperative relationship between landlords and disabled tenants into an adversarial one.

If you have had an encounter, good or bad, with CityVision Services or its principals, Gary Lacefield and Patrick Coleman I would like to hear about it. I keep track of trends in fair housing litigation, and I’m interested to know whether these filings constitute such a trend.  Please feel free to email me with any information about this or other so-called advocates that are filing HUD complaints on their own behalf rather than on behalf of individuals with a disability.