In neighborhoods across Los Angeles, apartment owners are openly breaking the law.
Stuck in their lawns are signs advertising "adults only" apartments, or "adult living" or simply a terse "adults." Other landlords place newspaper ads with the same messages.
These practices are illegal under a 5-year-old Los Angeles City Council ban on adult-only apartments and a pair of state Supreme Court rulings in 1982 and 1983 that held that discrimination based on age is unconstitutional in the renting of apartments and condominiums.
Nevertheless, government officials and fair-housing advocates said, discrimination against children remains a serious problem.
'Much More Prevalent'
"My gut feeling is housing restricted to children is much more prevalent than racial discrimination," said Carol Schiller, Southern California regional administrator of the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
The California Assn. of Tenants estimated that it receives 1,000 reports of child discrimination each year from families, outnumbering the racial and ethnic discrimination complaints it receives.
According to a statewide survey taken last summer by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing of 866 apartments with vacancies, only 53% of the landlords were willing to flatly state that they accept children in their buildings. A random survey by The Times of 20 Los Angeles apartment buildings with vacancies produced similar results.
Both fair-housing advocates and landlords said the state court rulings and the city law against child discrimination had an immediate but far from complete effect. The major reason the problem remains is that both the state fair-housing agency and the city attorney's office have declined to enforce the laws.
By its own admission, the city attorney's office washed its hands of child discrimination cases in 1981, classifying it as a low priority because of a manpower shortage.
Fair-housing advocates said the lack of prosecution has made it difficult to cope with techniques developed by landlords to get around the Supreme Court ruling.
Also, with scant child-discrimination case law on the books, it is often difficult to distinguish between apartment house regulations designed to harass families with children and valid rules intended to protect tenants' children from safety hazards.
Consider the case of Barbara Dellerson, a tenant at the Warner Willows I complex in Woodland Hills.
She said she was threatened with eviction last summer when one of her teen-age sons ran down to the pool to tell her that he had chipped his tooth. She said the manager reminded her that no one under 18 was allowed in the pool area.
James and Deborah Hansen, a couple at the same complex, said they received the same admonition from the management when they sat beside the pool with their infant daughter while chatting with neighbors.
Eva Elam, who manages the apartment complex with her husband, Bill, refused to discuss the incidents much beyond saying, "There is no discrimination against children in this building."
Apartment owners contended that their house rules are necessary to protect children and to keep their insurance carriers happy. This is especially true, they said, in apartment complexes originally designed for adult-only living where, typically, there are balconies and unfenced swimming pools.
However, officials at major insurance carriers said their policies are being misrepresented.
"There are no restrictions," said Susan Schneider, a spokeswoman at Allstate Insurance's corporate headquarters in Northbrook, Ill. "When we write them (apartment policies) we don't even ask if families live there."
Some apartment owners rely on the Los Angeles ordinance's provision that allows owners to limit children's freedom on apartment grounds when it is "reasonably necessary" to protect them. But interpretations of that provision vary tremendously.
The Oakwood Apartments complexes scattered throughout Los Angeles present an example of how the city's law has been interpreted.
No one under 18 is allowed to use an Oakwood complex's tennis courts or enter the clubhouses, where adults can play pool or Ping-Pong, watch television, lift weights, play cards or relax on the sofas.
Larry Carlin, senior vice president of marketing for R&B Enterprises, which operates 18 Oakwood apartments in the Los Angeles area, said the restrictions are "all geared toward safety considerations." For instance, he said, on a tennis court a child could fall or get hit by a ball from the mechanized thrower.
Assistant City Atty. Colin Chiu, who wrote the city ordinance in 1980, said he had swimming pools in mind when he inserted the safety provision. "I never saw a tennis court jump up and bite a child," he said.