For Immediate Release: August 7, 2003
Contact: Christopher Burley, Bazelon Center, 202-467-5730 x 133
Kathy Marma, AARP Florida, 727-592-8004 or KMarma@aarp.org
Ft. Myers, FL (August 7, 2003) - AARP, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and Fort Myers attorney Josephine Gagliardi today filed suit in federal court to protect the rights of older tenants to stay in their homes and to keep landlords from prying into their personal affairs.
The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Fort Myers Division, on behalf of Howard "Hop" Symons of Sanibel who was told he had to leave his home because his landlord no longer felt he was capable of independent living. The plaintiff's complaint alleges violations of the Federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"A big part of the American Dream is being able to decide where you want to live, and not being pushed around because of your age or disability," said AARP attorney Susan Ann Silverstein, who is representing Mr. Symons. "AARP and its members are committed to protecting these important housing rights against landlords who would discriminate."
Symons moved to Lee County in 1980 to visit his son, working as a tailor on Captiva Island before moving to the City of Sanibel in 1991. After 12 years of bicycling around Sanibel Island and living in an apartment developed under the City of Sanibel's Below Market Rental Housing program, Symons was shocked when his landlord, Community Housing and Resources (CHR), told him that his lease would not be renewed because CHR management thought he wasn't "capable of living independently." When he stood up for his rights, CHR began an eviction proceeding against him in state court.
From the beginning, Symons' response has been clear: "I don't need any help to manage, and I gave them plenty of letters from doctors saying so," he said. "Even if I did need help from my daughter or a service provider, I don't see where it is CHR's business as long as I pay the rent and keep my apartment up."
"I want to be the one, in consultation with my doctor, to decide if and when I need to move to a residence that provides care," added Symons "It's monstrous that CHR tried to take this choice away from me. They shouldn't be allowed to treat older people that way."
The City of Sanibel, named as a defendant in the lawsuit along with CHR and its rental manager, requires that any tenant living in an apartment in its Below Market Rental Program be capable of living independently," to be assessed for independent living on a regular basis and to be removed if the agency determines the requirement is no longer met.
"'Independent living' has a positive ring to it, but here it's being used to discriminate against people because of their age and because of their disabilities," said Silverstein. "It shouldn't matter to a landlord if a tenant hires a cleaning service or uses home health care."
"As Americans grow older, they should not be forced to leave their homes and move into institutional settings," said Bazelon Center attorney Michael Allen, who is also representing Symons.
"At some point, each of us will reach the point where age or disability requires us to seek some help. The question is whether our choices will be respected and our voices heard, or - as we believe happened in Mr. Symons' case - will they be arbitrarily disregarded."
According to the 2000 Census, 13.8% of Floridians 50 and older live in rental housing and could benefit from a ruling for Symons. Symons' attorneys hope that the litigation will put other landlords on notice of the consequences of failing to comply with the law. AARP asks tenants to contact their local fair housing agency, legal services office or call the Senior Helpline at 1-800-963-5337 if they believe they have been discriminated against because of their disabilities or through the use of a requirement to be "capable of independent living."
With more than 2.6 million members in Florida -- and 35 million nationwide -- AARP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization for people 50 and over. We provide information and resources; advocate on legislative, consumer, and legal issues; assist members to serve their communities; and offer a wide range of unique benefits, special products, and services for our members. These benefits include AARP Webplace at www.aarp.org, AARP Modern Maturity, and My Generation magazines, the monthly AARP Bulletin, and a Spanish-language newspaper, Segunda Juventud. Active in every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, AARP celebrates the attitude that age is just a number and life is what you make it.
The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law is the leading national legal advocate for people with mental disabilities. Through precedent-setting litigation and in the public policy arena, the Bazelon Center works to advance and preserve the rights of adults and children with mental illnesses and cognitive disabilities.