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A D.C. resident born in Ethiopia is suing the cooperative association of an apartment complex near the U Street corridor for allegedly denying her housing on the basis of her national origin. She was pregnant with her second child and looking for larger accommodations at the time.
In a suit filed Friday in U.S. District Court for D.C., attorneys for Melikt Mengiste argue that the cooperative association of 1901-07 15th St. NW and its president unlawfully discriminated against Mengiste in refusing to rent her an apartment there in 2015. According to the lawsuit, the cooperative association required Mengiste to “submit additional documentation” not required of other applicants—including verification forms from her employer and landlord—as part of her housing application, even after the complex’s management had “pre-approved” her that June. Though Mengiste complied, she was never contacted for a tenant interview, and was denied a unit in October without any explanation.
Mengiste’s lawyers say that while Mengiste’s application was pending, the president of the cooperative association, Delia Thompson, made “disparaging remarks about Ms. Mengiste’s family, history, and personal appearance, and about individuals of Ethiopian national origin” to the management company. Thompson allegedly claimed that Mengiste “had poor credit, that she had damaged her prior apartment, and that her husband had a criminal background”—all false, per the lawsuit. The suit furthermore claims that Thompson’s brother told Mengiste “we don’t want your kind here” when she was visiting the property, and that Thompson allegedly referred to Mengiste as “dirty” and “nasty.”
“I was so stressed by not having an adequate space where I could live with my family,” Mengiste says in a statement. “I cried all the time and would not want anyone else to experience what I went through. I am bringing this case so other people do not have to suffer the same way I did.”
Thompson could not immediately be reached for comment, but an attorney who serves as the “registered agent” for the co-op said Friday in an email that she had not yet discussed the lawsuit with her client.
Mengiste’s lawyers say she “suffered from depression and insomnia [for] at least eight months” as a result of these incidents, plus “attendant harms” like remaining in an “overcrowded” apartment for longer than necessary and having to find other housing. They’re seeking an injunction and compensation under both D.C. and federal laws.
“Ms. Mengiste’s experience of being denied housing on the basis of her national origin is but one example of the types of discriminatory and harassing treatment faced by members of the District’s immigrant community,” says Adam Chud, a partner at Goodwin Procter LLP, which is representing Mengiste along with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Mengiste, who has since relocated, lived in a studio with her husband, sister, and two children during the time she was applying for housing, according to her lawyers. Catherine Cone, a WLC staff attorney, notes that “given the current climate, we expect more incidents of this type will arise in the future.”
The suit is being brought under the Fair Housing Act and the District’s Human Rights Act, which both bar discrimination based on national origin.
This post has been updated to include additional comment from Mengiste and her lawyers.