CHICAGO — Mary Ellen Hintz has not made it any secret that she has Stage IV breast cancer. She is bald from the chemotherapy treatments that started in June, but has largely carried on with life as usual.
So she was surprised when she went to renew her apartment lease at The Sanctuary of Lake Villa and was told her disease might pose a problem. The leasing agent said that she could sign up for only one month at a time, and that her rent would increase, Hintz said.
When she asked why, she said was told that her breast cancer medications could make her incapable of understanding and signing a one-year lease. Hintz said she was given several options — move, find a co-signer for her contract or give her 31-year-old son legal power of attorney so that he could sign for her.
“I think this is blatant discrimination,” said Hintz, who has been haggling over terms of the lease for the past month.
Megan Harrington, director for the Lake County Fair Housing Center in Waukegan, Ill., said that federal law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. While cancer might not meet the strict definition of a disability, Hintz’s situation would likely be protected under the law, she said.
If the landlord perceived her as a person with a disability, “There would probably be a violation of the (federal) Fair Housing Act,” said Harrington, who is not involved in Hintz’s case.
Hintz’s landlord, Gary Buschman, said he was concerned about the effects of Hintz’s medications and feared she is not always lucid based on what he has been told by members of his staff.
After the Tribune began asking questions, Buschman met with Hintz and agreed to allow her to sign a one-year lease, as long as a witness was there to document that she was of sound mind.
“This person was never denied housing and has had multiple options with The Sanctuary of Lake Villa,” Buschman said. “Now she is choosing one. And that is great.”
Hintz said her monthly rent will go up by $62, a increase lower than what she was initially quoted.
Monica Fawzy, a lawyer with the Cancer Legal Resource Center’s Midwest office in Chicago, said discrimination involving cancer patients “is usually much more subtle” than what took place in Hintz’s case.
For example, she said she often hears complaints from cancer patients who are denied specific accommodations, such as a first-floor apartment even if they have trouble walking up stairs.
Discrimination in cases like that is difficult to prove, she said.
“You have to prove the reason they are not getting what they need ... is because of their cancer diagnosis,” Fawzy said. “Typically people don’t admit it.”
Hintz has lived in a 2-bedroom apartment for two years at The Sanctuary, which promotes itself with the motto: “It’s not just a home... It’s a lifestyle.” Her lease expires Sept. 30.
Hintz said that she couldn’t believe that Buschman, before even meeting her, held such strong concerns about the effects of her medications.
“I was so startled, I didn’t know if they were kidding me,” said Hintz, 60, a retired United Airlines employee and former real estate agent.
“I said, that’s between me and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act),” she said, referring to the federal law protecting a patient’s privacy.
Buschman had a copy of a letter that states that Hintz shouldn’t drive because of the narcotics she is taking as part of her cancer treatment. The letter was written by Hintz’s doctor to her attorney so she could avoid a court date in Kenosha, Ill., for a driving under the influence charge.
Hintz attributed the 2007 DUI charge to her use of a sleep aid, but decried her landlord’s use of it in lease negotiations.
Buschman said that he is only trying to protect his interests.
“It could be that if she is potentially on narcotic medication, the lease would be voidable by her,” he said. “We have had some instances where she appeared to be impaired.”
Hintz said she has no idea what he is talking about. She said that she does not drink alcohol or take any medication besides her prescriptions. Both she and her son said she has no history of psychiatric problems.
Hintz’s physician, Dr. Thomas McGowan, provided her with a wrote a note that reads: “Mary Ellen Hintz is competent to make decisions regarding her life. Her medications have not and will not alter her mental status.”
Hintz lives alone in an apartment filled with art work and custom-made window treatments. She described herself as a good tenant, but wondered if she angered Buschman by paying her rent over the past two years on the third week of the month, rather than the first — an agreement approved by a former leasing agent.
She said she bounced two rent checks for the first time this summer, but started paying by money order, as required in the lease. She also complained when her air conditioning went out for two weeks in late May, when temperatures reached 90 degrees.
“Besides that, I don’t know of anything that could possibly be it,” she said. “I don’t have parties. I don’t have pets. I keep my apartment immaculate all the time. ... I have my wherewithal to know that this is not kosher. But I am sure it’s happened to others, and I hate, hate injustice.”
The Cancer Legal Resource Center offers help nationally to people with complaints related to their disease, usually involving insurance, employment and housing. For help, call 866-THE-CIRC or 866-843-2572 or go to the web site, disabilityrightslegalcenter.org/about/cancerlegalresource.cfm.