Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A Washington, D.C., co-op’s rule allowing dogs to play in common outdoor areas—but not the children living there—could become a federal case.
On the Fourth of July, a little girl was visiting her friend at the Tiber Island co-op in Washington, D.C. A guard told the girl that she couldn’t play on her scooter in the plaza. Those are the rules.
“The plaza is not to be used for bicycle riding, skateboarding, etc.” That statute is laid out in House Rule #3, which states that children may play in designated areas only. The homeowners’ association’s governing documents explain that the lawns, plaza, pool, exercise room, and other common areas are not designated for playing.
John Jordan has had it up to here with House Rule #3. The girl who was scolded by the security guard was visiting his 9-year-old daughter. She, too, has been the victim of House Rule #3, he says. Back in May, a co-op security guard told her and other neighborhood children they couldn’t play on the plaza.
“There are at least a few [of the house rules] that are blatantly discriminatory against children, and hence families,” Jordan says.
Jordan is taking the matter all the way to the top. At the end of May, he and his wife, Theresa DiVenti, registered a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Co-op policies that say where children can and cannot assemble, he says, violate the Fair Housing Act of 1968. In Jordan’s view, House Rule #3 isn’t just mean—it’s unconstitutional.
In a May 20 email, Jordan asked the board to engage an attorney to review the co-op’s house rules for compliance with federal housing discrimination laws. The board has yet to take any action; in a recent meeting, the board decided to remove signs banning pets from the plaza. In his 15 years as a resident, Jordan has seen the board take quick action when it wants to.
“They’ve spent a couple board meetings talking about this pet policy—this house rule that deals with pets and where dogs can run and everything,” Jordan says. “But they haven’t dealt with these rules having to do with children. My wife and I became frankly fed up.”
Deciding they wouldn’t get any satisfaction from the board, Jordan and his wife filed their official complaint at the end of May. HUD kicked Jordan’s complaint to the D.C. Office of Human Rights, which is handling the investigation. Part of that process involves a mandatory mediation meeting; it was planned for July 22, but the board asked to reschedule it.
Does Jordan have a case? The Fair Housing Act identifies children under the age of 18 living with their parents or legal custodians as a protected class. Certainly landlords cannot discriminate against families when renting or selling homes. Jordan passed along an unrelated document prepared by Tiber Island’s insurance agent: a letter in which the broker raises a red flag about the fitness-room policy:
“Caution must be used when establishing age restrictions regarding use of the common amenities to assure compliance with all Federal as well as District of Columbia laws, codes and ordinances,” the letter reads. “Accordingly we recommend that the Cooperative’s Attorney be consulted for an opinion.”
Jordan’s goal is plain: He wants his daughter to be able to play on the cooperative’s handsome “great lawn,” swim in the pool, and play on the plaza as she sees fit. “Children can’t play on that lawn, but dogs have free run of it,” he says.
He isn’t willing to speculate about why the board has declined to address the issue. He does note, though, that his home is one of the dozen or so households with children at the co-op. Most of the 389 units are occupied by adults without children at home.
“There are nine people on the board. There is not a single board member with children at home on the board. To my knowledge, there is one board member who is married,” Jordan says. “So there is not any sort of innate understanding of family life.”
He adds: “Which is not necessarily necessary, of course. One can rely on qualified attorneys to fill you in if you’re not aware of these things, absolutely. That’s the way it should be.”