By Karla Bowsher, BrowardBulldog.org
Hollywood is under a federal fair housing investigation after a family of 10 Sephardic Orthodox Jews accused the city of discrimination and harassment.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development notified the city last week of the investigation that’s in response to a complaint that the city is illegally using code enforcement against Steven and Renee Kohn.
Among the assertions, the Kohns say they were forced to give away their chickens and dwarf goats this month as a result of discrimination. They argue that other residents in their neighborhood are allowed to have such animals.
The Kohns contend the disagreement over the animals fits into a larger pattern of discrimination against their religious beliefs and culture.
“All I want is to live in my house,” Renee Kohn said. “That’s all I want.”
The Kohns, who have lived in Hollywood’s Emerald Hills neighborhood since September 2008, were born in the United States but are of Middle Eastern descent. While they practice Judaism, their cultural customs are influenced by their Arabic heritage. They speak Arabic and the female family members wear clothing that covers their arms and knees in public, similar to Muslim attire.
The Fair Housing Act, which is jointly enforced by HUD and the Department of Justice, prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, and disability.
In response to the formal complaint, federal law requires HUD to conduct an investigation. HUD could charge the city or dismiss the complaint.
“We will obviously cooperate with the investigation, but we do not believe that we have done anything discriminatory against the Kohn family,” city spokesperson Raelin Storey said.
A CITY WITH A PAST
The Kohns are not the first to accuse the city of religious discrimination.
In 2006, the city agreed to certain reforms to settle a federal lawsuit brought by the Justice Department alleging it had discriminated against the Hollywood Community Synagogue based on its religious denomination, the Chabad Lubavitch movement of Orthodox Judaism. The city had denied the synagogue a zoning permit to operate from single-family homes despite granting such permits to other houses of worship.
The city also agreed to pay the synagogue $2 million in damages and legal costs.
According to the Kohns’ discrimination complaint, “The neighbors undertook a campaign to harass the complainants by repeatedly reporting them to the City of Hollywood Police and Code Enforcement in regards to their pets: eight hens and two 17-inch Dwarf Nigerian goats.”
Next-door neighbor Sandra Einhorn denied the Kohns’ claims and told Broward Bulldog the Kohns are the ones who harass her and her husband. “Everything they accuse me and the city of they are actually doing,” she said. “They have no proof other than what they say.”
Sandra Einhorn has recorded the Kohns’ alleged harassment on video and uploaded it to a YouTube channel.
The Kohns say Sandra Einhorn does business with Hollywood and believes she has used her influence at city hall against them. Sandra Einhorn is the executive director of the nonprofit Rebuilding Together Broward County, which revitalizes low-income neighborhoods.
Public records show that last year the city gave Einhorn’s organization $55,000 in exchange for their services in Hollywood. The resolution was signed by Victoria Johnson, director of what was then Hollywood’s Department of Community Development and Code Compliance. (Code Enforcement has since been made part of the Police Department.)
Einhorn denied using her relationship with the city against the Kohns.
“The only alliance the city has with me is of me being a good citizen,” she said. “All we want is for the rules to be enforced fairly.”
Records show Code Enforcement has cited the Kohns twice because their animals violated city law. The ordinance prohibits “the keeping of poultry, dogs, cattle and other domestic or wild animals” but makes an exception for pets: “The keeping of dogs and other small domestic animals as household pets shall be permitted within the city, but said household pets shall not be kept for breeding purposes.”
In August 2010, the city imposed a retroactive lien on the Kohns’ home, fining them $250 a day for not complying. On July 13, 2011, the city sued Steve Kohn to collect more than $160,000 in fines. The case is pending.
“They assert that they are in compliance with the city’s ordinances, dispute the characterization of their pets as “livestock,” according to the complaint.
Code Enforcement Officer Irish Gardner, who cited the Kohns for keeping chickens, testified during a July 27 deposition “that other city residents with poultry have been treated differently by the City,” according to the HUD complaint. The Kohns claim that the residents who keep poultry but have never been cited for it are not Sephardic Orthodox Jews and were not cited because the city has a cultural bias.
On August 8, Judge Michele Towbin Singer ordered the Kohns to give the animals away as the result of the lawsuit the Einhorns filed against them last year in Broward Circuit Court. The Kohns have complied with the court’s order, but said they are appealing.
The Kohns have been cited a total of nine times since September 2008 and claim that police or code enforcement officers have visited their home 54 times in response to calls from neighbors.
“It started the day I moved in,” Renee Kohn said. “From the second our local government laid eyes on us, we weren’t welcomed here.”
The Kohns said police and Code Enforcement often visit them on their religious holidays, including four of the eight days of the past Hanukkah and six of the eight days of the past Passover.
“Meanwhile, our next holiday is coming up and everybody is wondering what is going to happen,” Steve Kohn said. The family is considering spending Rosh Hashanah at someone else’s home.
“You’re dreading the night before the holiday. You can’t sleep,” Renee Kohn said. “I’m just praying.”
Karla Bowsher can be reached at KBowsher@BrowardBulldog.org.