A half dozen Napa seniors recently settled a federal complaint alleging that the company that manages their apartment project, Napa Creek Manor on Jefferson Street, was violating their rights to have assistance pets.
Under the voluntary settlement, seniors at the complex will be allowed to walk their dogs on the premises and the management company could face consequences, including a termination of federal financial assistance, if it is found to discriminate against residents based on disability or other protected status.
In their complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the seniors alleged that many neighbors at Napa Creek Manor and the facility’s management disliked dogs and harassed residents who own such animals for assistance purposes.
“These were overly-restrictive rules,” said Mary Prem, executive director of the Housing Equality Law Project (HELP), which fought on behalf of the seniors. “There just wasn’t a justification.”
In 2010, HELP began working with the seniors at Napa Creek Manor who said they were being discriminated against because they use canine service animals. In May, the seniors filed a complaint with HUD.
“In facilities funded by HUD, seniors are allowed to have a pet,” Prem said, explaining that pets, including dogs, can help prevent loneliness and other ailments to which seniors could otherwise succumb.
“I was held up to ridicule,” said 75-year-old Edith Longmire, who has been living at the facility for more than 10 years with a Shih Tzu mix named Eddie. “People called me ‘the dog lady.’ ... I was really picked on terribly.”
Jean Conran, 76, said she was eventually forced to have her poodle-terrier Charlie put down as a result of harassment. Conran, who is partially deaf, said she had Charlie to alert her when someone was at the door or of other dangers, but some residents complained to apartment management about her dog’s barking.
The barking, she said, was mostly caused by a neighbor who installed a device emitting a high-pitched noise that only dogs can hear in an effort to keep dogs away from her apartment.
“Charlie started hiding under the bed. ... That thing bothered him,” Conran said.
As months went on, Charlie began nipping at some residents, although he had never bitten anyone prior to installation of the device, Conran said. In 2011, faced with eviction if she did not get rid of Charlie, Conran had him put to sleep.
“It broke my heart,” Conran said. “I was totally depressed and I was scared spitless because I was by myself, unable to hear at night.”
The John Stewart Company, which manages Napa Creek Manor, admitted to no wrongdoing in the agreement. It said it had wanted to work out any problems but the complaint was filed before that could happen.
“We didn’t do anything wrong in this and that’s our position in the conciliation agreement,” said Vice President Steven McElroy. “We’re in compliance and committed to fair housing. We regret that the legal structure makes it easier to file complaints than to work to find common ground.”
The agreement says the John Stewart Company will follow a number of provisions and make accommodations, many of which McElroy said are already being done or were in the works before the complaint was filed.
“We didn’t discriminate,” McElroy said. “Anybody who has come and requested accommodation for an assistance animal, we’ve accommodated.”
Among some of the accommodations the facility must make are to build a dog park and roll out an animal agreement that addresses accommodation animals. This agreement will differ from the one addressing pets not filling an assistance roll. McElroy said the facility was already working on these two measures before the complaint was filed.
In the case of the dog run, the facility was waiting for the completion of Napa Creek flood control work, which would have disrupted the site, he said.
The complex must also continue practices it is already doing, including continuing to post a “Fair Housing Poster” on the premises and distribute fair housing brochures to all current and future residents, according to the agreement.
Prem said the agreement is good news for seniors and other residents of the company’s housing facilities across the state. The John Stewart Company is the largest affordable housing management company in California, officials said.
“We are very happy that we are able to get most of the affirmative relief we asked for,” she said. “My goal is that this builds new relationships between the residents and the management, not create a bigger divide.”
A settlement was reached in December. In addition to several pages of stipulations, HELP was awarded $15,000 and each of the named seniors was awarded $2,500.
“No one was looking for money in this,” Prem said. “As one resident said, ‘I just want to be treated as a normal person, nothing more. I want to be respected and not scared of what’s next.’”
Conran said she may use her award to purchase a mobile wheelchair. She said she is looking forward to putting the conflict behind her and said this is the last time she plans to speak of the matter.
After her neighbor’s anti-bark device was removed, Conran said she got a new assistance dog, Suki, who is quieter but still alerts her to visitors. She is working to have Suki designated as a service animal.