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A Duke student was denied off-campus housing because she was only 20. Is that legal?

The Heights at LaSalle is one example of an apartment complex that has an age minimum for signing leases. Joe Gote argues that the age restriction should be considered illegal.
The Heights at LaSalle is one example of an apartment complex that has an age minimum for signing leases. Joe Gote argues that the age restriction should be considered illegal.

When Tessa Gote came to Duke for graduate school from the Netherlands, she quickly faced a problem: she couldn’t find housing. 

Almost 21 at the time, she wasn’t accepted to Duke until April 2018, so some apartments were full when she started looking. The Heights at LaSalle had vacancies, but the complex didn’t take her because she wasn’t old enough. She had to be 22 to lease. 

“It's crazy that I'm a grad student and I can't rent an apartment,” she said. 

She said she understands why the complex may have implemented the rule after hearing that parties often take place, but thinks that such behavior should be dissuaded in a different way. 

Her father Joe Gote, an attorney, argues that apartment buildings like The Heights at LaSalle are discriminating based upon age, in violation of the Fair Housing Act. A Harvard Law professor thinks Joe Gote’s claim is not totally invalid but unlikely to be accepted were he to file suit. Joe Gote is considering filing a lawsuit and plans to contact the American Civil Liberties Union, he told The Chronicle in an email. 

Duke should be doing something about it, he says. A Duke administrator argues that apartment age restrictions are the government’s jurisdiction, and many students typically find housing with no problem.

Two Duke seniors also told The Chronicle they were unable to rent at The Heights at LaSalle apartment complex due to their age. 

Undergraduates at Duke are guaranteed housing for three years and “generally” a fourth year if rooms are available, according to the Student Affairs website. Graduate students are not guaranteed housing.

Roughly 85% of Duke undergraduates live on campus. But that figure includes underclassmen, who are for the most part required to live on campus for three years. Based on those calculations, roughly a majority of seniors live off campus. 

Many of those seniors face apartments with age restrictions that could prevent them from leasing—in Durham, at least The Heights at LaSalle, Berkshire Main Street, Station Nine, Trinity Commons, Solis Brightleaf and 810 9th Street all require tenants to be 21 or 22. Not all rising seniors are 21 or 22 when they sign leases.

“It limits the availability of apartments. It forces them to go to places that may be unsafe for them to live,” argued Tessa’s father, Joe Gote, a licensed U.S. attorney, Ph.D. candidate and an adjunct lecturer at the University of Amsterdam’s School of Law.  

Other municipalities have enacted laws to prevent age discrimination against those 18 or older, including Baltimore. Under North Carolina law, those 18 or older can rent apartments legally, but there is no state law preventing age discrimination above 18. 

Joe Gote went to Sue Wasiolek, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, on July 30, 2018 to voice his concerns. Joe Gote asked Wasiolek to call the apartments and tell them that the age requirements appeared to be discriminatory and to ask the apartments to reconsider their policies. She initially agreed that it sounded like discrimination, Joe Gote said, but Wasiolek ultimately declined to take action. 

“Are you telling me that the University doesn’t care that its students are being discriminated against?” Joe Gote asked her. 

“It’s not that we don’t care, but we have other things to deal with,” she said, according to Gote’s recollections.  

Wasiolek said Gote is “attributing statements to me that I either didn’t make or were taken out of context.” Wasiolek could not say specifically what was inaccurate or out of context about Gote's statements after multiple follow-up questions, saying "time and memory will not allow me to do any better than this."

Wasiolek says she hasn’t heard complaints from students about not being able to rent apartments due to age. 

“Indeed, every year hundreds of Duke students, of all ages, rent apartments and houses throughout the community with no problem,” Wasiolek wrote in a statement to The Chronicle. “Further, it is the government’s responsibility to address any allegations of housing discrimination, not the university’s.”

“They may be interested, but Duke is unwilling to intervene and make an open public statement saying ‘we don’t like this,’” Joe Gote said. 

He told The Chronicle that Duke should get involved on students’ behalf for two reasons. First, he believes seniors may be forced to live in unsafe places because such policies could limit apartment availability. Second, with very limited on-campus housing for graduate students, “graduate students who are under 22 [years old] are forced to live [in] places that may not be desirable to live,” Joe Gote said. 

If anyone has been discriminated against because of their age, Wasiolek wrote, they should contact the City of Durham Human Relations Division or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Chronicle spoke with two current seniors who were unable to rent at The Heights at LaSalle due to their age. 

Senior Aditi Pilani told The Chronicle she toured The Heights at LaSalle assuming she would be able to rent with some roommates. But none of them were old enough to rent because of their age. She felt the policy limited her choices. 

“We liked the apartments and the location so I think we definitely would’ve considered it,” she told The Chronicle. 

The Heights at LaSalle was the first place senior Olivia Pennoyer looked for an apartment. She didn’t know about the policy, so she was confused when she gave a worker at The Heights at LaSalle her driver’s license, and the worker said she was too young to rent. 

She was shocked and looked other places, she said. 

‘A strong inference that it is discrimination’

The Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 as one of the major legislative achievements of the civil rights movement. It originally prohibited discrimination against those looking to buy or rent a home, get a mortgage, or "other housing-related activities" based upon four criteria: color, race, national origin or religion. Sex was added to this list in 1974. 

In 1988, the act was amended to make it "illegal to discriminate against families with children and against persons with physical or mental disabilities.” 

However, housing for older persons was exempt from familial status discrimination in this amendment, allowing senior living complexes to keep out people under 55. The meaning of housing for older persons was changed in a 1995 amendment to reflect “housing intended and operated for occupancy by at least one person 55 years of age or older per unit.”

Joe Gote's claim for age discrimination stems from this 1995 amendment. To him, this implies that the Fair Housing Act protects renters from age-based discrimination. An exemption that allows for renters to keep those under the age of 55 out would seem to imply that discrimination outside of that age range is prohibited, he argues. 

“It doesn’t take a legal genius to figure out there is a strong inference that it is discrimination,” Joe Gote told The Chronicle. “You have the law and have the exemption to the law that allows for 55 and over but doesn’t allow anything in between….It hasn’t been tested because they prey on young people who won’t fight it.”

Joseph Singer, a Harvard Law professor who teaches property law and has written extensively on the Fair Housing Act, isn’t ruling out the validity of Gote’s claim, but isn’t very optimistic either, writing in an email that a court would be “unlikely” to accept his argument in the event of a lawsuit.

He said North Carolina and federal law do not prohibit age discrimination as some states like Massachusetts do. He also believes that the “familial status” clause “suggests an intent to protect young people but not to protect against other forms of age discrimination.”

“I would be in favor of adding ‘age’ to the federal Fair Housing Act, and the state legislature in North Carolina might consider adding ‘age’ to its antidiscrimination statute, but absent that, the claim is likely, but not certain, to fail,” he wrote.

Singer added that a claim of age discrimination in North Carolina law “could be made,” leaving it up to the state’s supreme court to rule on the case. 

Phillip Jordan, city staff liaison for the Durham Humans Rights commission, told The Chronicle in an email the commission could not do anything for Tessa Gote “because age is not a protected class under the federal Fair Housing Act or the Durham Fair Housing Ordinance.” 

Should Duke take action? Joe Gote thinks so 

Tessa Gote’s late acceptance to Duke—in April, with classes starting in July—left her with few housing options, even as a 20-year-old graduate student. 

When she was turned away from The Heights at LaSalle, they pointed her to a nearby apartment that had no security gate. Security was very important for Joe Gote, who was sending his child across the Atlantic Ocean to go to school in a new country. 

He pleaded with The Heights at LaSalle, arguing it was age discrimination. Christian Vitale, regional director of The Heights' parent company—The Worthing Companies—wrote in an email to Gote that there is no exception to the age policy, “[e]ven though his daughter is mature for her age and seems very responsible.” 

“We are not violating fair housing with age restriction, we would be violating fair housing if we made the exception for his daughter,” Vitale wrote in an email to Anna Sullivan, The Heights at LaSalle’s community director, which Sullivan forwarded to Joe Gote. “As much as we would love to have her and the roommate part of our community, we are unable to make the exception.” 

“The fact is that they’re discriminating against everyone,” Joe Gote said. “Their view is that they can discriminate against anyone as long as they don’t make exceptions.” 

Vitale did not respond to multiple requests for comment, including a request that included several specific questions about his email. 

Gote had also asked if any of the legal clinics at the School of Law could look into potential age discrimination. Liz Gustafson, associate dean for academic affairs and counsel to the dean of the School of Law, wrote in an email to Gote on July 30, 2018 that the clinics were only able to serve clients who are "unable to pay for legal representation." She pointed toward the Durham Human Relations Commission. 

Durham’s Station Nine also has a 21 age minimum, but ultimately leased to her even though she was a few weeks younger than 21. 

Solis Brightleaf, Berkshire Main, Trinity Commons and The Heights at LaSalle did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 810 9th Street and Station Nine told The Chronicle they comply with applicable laws, including the Fair Housing Act. 

Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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