LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – Discrimination.
That was the unanimous decision Monday night by the East Lansing Human Rights Commission in a complaint filed over a year ago.
The case was filed by Ingham County Commissioner and attorney Mark Grebner on behalf of his niece Maria Yokich-Grebner Aug. 22, 2022. The complaint alleges DTN management discriminated against her on the basis of legal income.
Now the nine-member commission has ruled Yokich-Grebner was subjected to illegal discrimination. The decision, made Oct. 8, may be the first time a finding of discrimination has been made under the human rights ordinance since it was adopted by the city in 1968, says Chair Karen Hoene.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time that we’ve ever, that the Human Rights Commission has ever, had a finding like this,” Hoene tells 6 News.
The unanimous decision on Monday night if the first step to resolving the case and holding DTN Management accountable for the violation, she says. The Commission has ordered that DTN post notice in all its East Lansing offices. The company will also be required to reimburse Yokich-Grebner her $200 deposit. The company will also have to waive any outstanding balance.
DTN did not respond to an email or immediately return a phone call seeking comment from 6 News. Company officials and representatives, city officials say, did not attend any of the Human Rights Commission meetings about the complaint.
If negotiations fall apart, the city could take further action, up to and including terminating the rental licenses for the company’s properties in East Lansing, Hoene says.
DTN owns dozens of properties in East Lansing alone. Grebner estimates a loss of licensing could cost the company tens of millions of dollars in revenue. The company also has properties in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Lansing. Overall the company manages 8,000 rental units in Michigan and Florida.
Hoene says she doesn’t imagine the case is over at this point.
“I imagine that we will be getting further correspondence and further recommendations from our city attorney,” she says.
Yokich-Grebner was a resident of DTN Management’s Woodbrook Village Apartments beginning Aug. 6, 2021. She had also been a tenant at other DTN properties. She moved into Woodbrook Village with her two children, both under age 7 at the time. She lived in a two-bedroom, 960 square foot apartment during her tenure at the East Lansing complex.
During the pandemic, Yokich-Grebner says she had struggled with income, in part due a job change. She received COVID Emergency Rental Assistance, also known as CERA, after applying with the encouragement of DTN Management. Because of the job change, she did fall behind in her payments, according to the complaint filed with the Human Rights Commission.
Yokich-Grebner’s complaint included a message from Jessica Garcia, then a leasing manager for Woodbrook Village Apartments. The message provided information on how Yokich-Grebner could renew the lease.
On June 29, 2022 Garcia texted Yokich-Grebner to say the lease would not be renewed.
“I pushed really hard to get you renewed,” Garcia messaged. “However, DTN is no longer renewing anyone who received CERA, I’m super sorry! Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.”
Previously, DTN Marketing Director Denise Todd has denied the company declined to renew any leases based on CERA funding.
“If something happened like that, it would have been just a human error,” she said.
Mark Grebner, who is Yokich-Grebner’s uncle, says he’s happy about the Human Rights Commission finding. But he says this situation was an unfortunate outgrowth of the COVID pandemic.
“What happened was that during COVID-19 couldn’t fill their buildings because MSU sent all the students home,” he says. “So, DTN was happy to use federal money to fill some of the apartments. And then the moment that MSU was back in session, and they needed the apartments for students, they seemed to get to work kicking all the families out. That’s really what this was about.”
While he doesn’t expect an infectious disease to run afoul of the community anytime in the near future, he says he does hope the leasing and property management company received a message.
“I hope that DTN doesn’t find itself cheating on the the requirements for receiving federal money in the future,” he tells 6 News. “As far as affecting DTN, I have a feeling that DTN has learned from this that they need to be careful what they say.”
Hoene says the action by the commission is important for the community as a whole.
“I really hope that sends a message to the communities and to landlords and everybody that we take this very seriously,” Hoene says of the decision. “And that our role is to uphold the human rights of folks in our community and residents of East Lansing.”
“We take this very seriously and we want East Lansing to be a fair and equitable community in which to live and to work and to exist and that we are here to investigate,” Hoene says. “And we are here for people if they feel that they are being discriminated against and even if it’s an unpopular decision or controversial decision, we’re going to do what we feel is right.”
On Oct. 11, the Michigan Senate approved legislation to make it illegal to discriminate against legal sources of income statewide. The legislation is now under consideration in the House.