Can a landlord announce he will only rent to non-meat-eating tenants? Does a ‘Vegan-Only’ rental constitute discrimination? Apparently, ‘Yes,’ and ‘No.’
But wait — there’s more.
I’ll give the subject of this story some credit. He came up with a novel way of scoring points, and getting himself a prominent position in the local news cycle.
But was that really his intention? More on that in a moment. First, the story.
According to a report on Fox News, Jinesh Varia, a Seattle area homeowner, and his wife decided to rent their three-bedroom townhome in suburban Bothell, Washington, to take advantage of the Seattle’s current sky-high real estate prices. Their townhome features a spacious backyard, a Jacuzzi tub and other high-end upgrades.
But Varia, a strict vegetarian, wants his tenants to adhere to the same diet, so he offered to cut $200 off the listed $2,200 rent for people who don’t eat meat.
“Ethically and morally, it’s extremely important to be vegetarian,” Varia told King 5 News, the local NBC-TV affiliate. He said he and his wife, both members of the group Vegetarians of Washington, want to spread the no-meat gospel.
That’s fine, but does his offer constitute discrimination against meat eaters? According to authorities quoted in the story, Varia’s tactics are legal.
“This appears to be a neutral policy [on its face], giving vegetarian and vegan tenants a discount on rent,” Lee Jones, HUD Public Affairs director for the Northwest region, told FoxNews.com. “Although the policy does not appear to be discriminatory, there may be an instance where the practice or application of the policy may have a discriminatory effect that may give rise to a possible violation under the Fair Housing Act.”
The 1968 Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale of or rental to persons based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
But not diet.
“Meat-eaters are not a protected class under constitutional law,” Michele Hunter, a Seattle attorney who works on housing cases, told FoxNews.com. “They would not be able to raise a discrimination claim unless they could link to ‘disparate impact,’ meaning that landlords say they’re screening out meat-eaters, but it’s actually a pretext for screening out people of color or a particular gender.”
Of course, it will require some time and effort for Varia to enforce the “no meat’ clause in a rental agreement. He said he will abide by the honor code — meaning, he won’t sift through the trash to check up on his tenants. But he could take legal action if he found, say, the remnants of a bucket of KFC Extra Crispy in the dumpster.
“Rental agreements often have clauses that allow landlords to invalidate a lease if it’s discovered that the tenant lied on an application,” Hunter said, “so I assume if the tenant has a pig roast, they could accuse the tenant of fraud.”
The rest of the story
After sifting through all that information, this seemed like yet another of those quasi-legal “disputes” that people fight over without ever reaching any resolution — until I read through the comments following the article and noticed the following post from somebody called Achintya:
“This man is a Gujarati. Gujarati landlords in India never rent to meat-eating people. Meat eaters either lie or are forced to eat outside their homes in deference to the sentiments of their landlord. [He] is simply following what people from his community do on a regular basis in India.”
That commenter’s observation appears to be accurate.
Gujaratis have traditionally been India’s leading merchants and business entrepreneurs. The ethnic group includes such notables as Mahatma Gandhi, several Bollywood movie stars, American astronaut Sunita Williams, who spent several weeks on the International Space Station, and, according to Wikipedia, the late rock star Freddie Mercury.
Here’s what’s interesting: Some in-depth reporting in The Times of India noted that Gujaratis have migrated to Australia, Canada and the United States in large numbers over the past several decades. Recent estimates now put their share of ownership in the U.S. hospitality industry at more than 21,000 hotels and motels worth somewhere north of $40 billion.
Thus, Mr. Varia’s real estate ploy appears to be right in line with his cultural traditions, both economic and culinary.
He and his wife will likely be able to sift through dozens of would-be tenants who will swear that nothing of animal origins ever passes their lips.
But with the housing market in the Seattle being what it is, I’ll bet some of them are more focused on that $200 bucks than they are about some affidavit swearing they subsist on rice and beans.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.