Fair Housing Discrimination Suit Against Condo Association Offers Cautionary Tale on Overzealous Occupancy Restrictions

Condominium association boards of directors are always considering measures to help maintain and enhance the quality of life of their community’s owners and residents.  Some associations grow concerned about too many occupants per unit and the burden that additional residents place on a community’s amenities and services, so they decide to implement occupancy restrictions in order to limit the number of people residing in each unit.

However, as a Palm Beach County condominium recently found out, overly aggressive occupancy restrictions have the potential to run afoul of the federal Fair Housing Act bans on discriminatory housing practices against couples with children, and nonprofit housing agencies are willing and able to take up the case of aggrieved residents or proposed residents.

A fair housing advocacy group called the Fair Housing Center of the Greater Palm Beaches filed suit in federal court recently against the condominium association for the Fontana Condominium in Palm Beach as well as its president and property manager.  The suit alleges that the defendants have discriminated against families, including those with minor children, by enacting and enforcing policies that limit the number of persons and children who may reside in the community’s units.  It is seeking preliminary and injunctive relief as well as damages for the alleged discrimination against familial status in housing that violates the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.  The suit also seeks punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and a court order mandating that the defendants establish a victims’ fund for those were victimized by their discrimination.

The suit alleges that in 2010 the condominium community adopted a two-person maximum occupancy restriction for all of its units, which each have two bedrooms.  It states that the occupancy policy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development adopted in 1998 holds that two occupants per bedroom is deemed to be reasonable under the Fair Housing Act.  The suit also alleges that the two-person limit imposed by the condominium violates the local occupancy code in Palm Beach County, and the policy resulted in familial status discrimination when it was used to deny the tenancy of a couple with their infant child.

From a cursory review of the 16-page complaint, the plaintiffs appear to have a strong case against the association and its management, which will likely incur significant expenses in their defense.  The end result will be a significant amount of legal and financial hardships for the community, all of which it may have been able to avoid by first consulting with highly qualified and experienced legal counsel prior to implementing the two-person occupancy restriction for its two-bedroom residences.

Condominium associations in Florida and across the country should take note of this case, as it illustrates the potential pitfalls that can come as result of overzealous occupancy restrictions.