IN 1993, when Albert Jeyte (pronounced Yi-teh) decided to stand fast against a "familial status discrimination" lawsuit filed by the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, he and his attorney, Perry W. Confalone, believed it was somewhat of a test case.
Landlord who says
hes as civil as anyone
Why else would the state agency aggressively pursue Jeyte, the 57-year-old owner of Kilauea Lodge on the Big Island, for almost three years, trying to win monetary damages and a public apology from him and his 82-year-old mother-in-law for not renting a one-bedroom, one-bath cottage to a family of four?
According to HCRC attorney John Ishihara, Jeyte was a landlord with an "overly restrictive occupancy policy." This breach was revealed when Jeyte told Jack and Misayo Hobbs and their two young children that there was a three-person occupancy limit for his 600-square-foot rental cottage. Families with young kids are the most common victims of housing discrimination in Hawaii, says Ishihara, so the HCRC must be their advocate.
But Jeyte's attorney has a bone to pick with the governmental watchdog. "No one would argue that families with children don't deserve suitable housing," says Confalone of the Torkildson, Katz law firm. "The issue is whether by virtue of its radical interpretation of the fair housing statute, the HCRC has perverted the very purpose for which the statute was enacted."
Confalone cites an HCRC regulation that says an occupancy limit is "overly restrictive" unless it allows the maximum number of people permissible under local housing codes. Those codes set minimally acceptable standards of health and safety, and were designed to alleviate slum conditions, not promote family housing, according to Confalone.
Furthermore, these very same local housing ordinances typically set occupancy limits based on the square footage of rooms used "for sleeping purposes" -- which the HCRC says may include living rooms and dining areas.
Such questionable rationale caused Confalone to shake his head, and simply stymied Jeyte: Why must a landlord be prepared to rent to the maximum number of occupants permissible based on minimally acceptable standards of health and safety?
Why should denial of such a rental so easily lead to a lawsuit or the threat of one, with the help of a taxpayer-funded office?
Jeyte told Confalone to fight this thing all the way up to the state Supreme Court, if necessary, which is exactly what may happen. Three weeks before its scheduled trial date in January, the HCRC dismissed all claims against Jeyte when his insurance company agreed to pay the Hobbses less than $10,000 to settle. This case, however, is not over.
Jeyte wants to sue the HCRC for negligent investigation, a request that is currently on appeal in the Hawaii Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Confalone plans to lobby the Legislature next year.
HE sees the need for an amendment to the fair housing law that reflects the common sense notion that people ordinarily sleep in bedrooms, not in living rooms or in dining areas, and therefore total square footage should not be the primary determinant of occupancy. "The federal law presumes that a two-person per bedroom limit is reasonable. We need to adopt the same standard," says Confalone.
As for Albert Jeyte, receiving a $2,500 check from the commission earlier this month as "partial" reimbursement of his attorneys' fees was an insult, especially since his total costs have soared well over $200,000. How ironic that he was forced to sell another rental to defend his rights as a private landlord.
(Last Friday: Part one)