After failing to expand anti-discrimination laws in Olympia last session, women's rights advocates at Seattle's Northwest Women's Law Center (NWLC) have gone to plan B: an on-point, charismatic woman named Constance Raney. Working with NWLC, Raney, 34, filed a lawsuit in federal court against a Tacoma property manager on January 13 that may accomplish what the women's advocacy group failed to achieve in Olympia. NWLC's goal? Adding domestic violence victims to the state's list of protected classes.

Raney, a conservatively dressed young mom who sports a retro Diana Ross hairdo, contacted the NWLC in May 2002 after she was denied housing at a gated rental community in Tacoma that April. According to Raney's suit, filed on January 13 of this year, the Narrows Creek Townhomes, located in a nice middle-class neighborhood with a view of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, "refused to rent to Ms. Raney because she had previously been a victim of domestic violence."

The way Raney tells the story, the rental agent ran a background check and discovered two domestic violence protection orders that Raney had filed against her husband in 1998 and 2000. (Raney was in the process of divorcing the man, which is why she was seeking a new apartment for herself and her two young children.) Two hours after Raney visited the $900 (now $995) two-bedroom apartments and filled out the housing application, the agent left Raney a voice mail saying the application was denied. Raney quickly called back to find out why. The agent, complaining that Raney hadn't told her about the DV orders and citing Raney's credit history, said Raney's "risk factors" were too high.

The management company, Crawford/ Katica Inc., did not return our calls, nor had they filed a response to Raney's suit yet. But according to Raney, the property manager has claimed that bad credit, not DV, was the issue. Raney doesn't deny that before her divorce was finalized her credit rating was lousy. In fact, when Raney first looked at the apartment, she warned the rental agent that her then-husband's credit had fouled up her record. Raney offered to have her mother cosign. However, Raney's application went nowhere. About a week and a half later, Raney, using her mother as a cosigner, landed a larger apartment elsewhere in Tacoma. In Raney's opinion, this proves that finances weren't the issue. In fact, Raney, who has worked at the Frank Russell Co. financial firm in downtown Tacoma for about four years, claims that the rental agent never even tried to verify Raney's employment--indicating to her that they weren't investigating her financial situation.

"I was trying to make a new life for myself, and I was punished for that," Raney says. "How far does it go? Can your kids be turned away from a school because the school is worried about an abusive father? Can you be fired from a job because your husband shows up at the workplace?"

Raney's lawsuit states that since women make up about 90 to 95 percent of domestic violence victims, discriminating against DV victims violates state housing rules prohibiting gender discrimination. "The law doesn't specifically cover DV as a class," says Raney's pro-bono attorney Brian Buckley, "but because of the disproportionate impact [of domestic violence], it amounts to discrimination against women. We're asking the courts to expand and advance the law."

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