Rabbi Bruce Kahn's attire is unassuming, his office unadorned. Dressed casually in kakhis and a button-down shirt sans tie, Kahn stands in his office near DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. The walls are sparsely decorated with baseball memorabilia and Navy hats. His desk is stacked with papers and religious books. You would never guess that the 62-year-old Kahn has faced off against some of the wealthiest, most influential men in real estate.
But that doesn't mean Kahn is the John Q. Citizen he appears to be. As Kahn steps down from the executive director role at the Equal Rights Center (ERC)—an organization whose predecessor he helped found 25 years ago—the multifamily industry is holding its breath, unsure what will happen next. For many of the industry's biggest and best firms, the ERC has been a divisive, antagonistic foe. That's what happens when a little nonprofit has the audacity to sue some of the most respected companies in the business for alleged violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Federal Housing Administration (FHA). And at the center of it all is Kahn.
“We're casting a question mark on the good feeling that [apartment owners] want to have about themselves,” Kahn says. “Developers want to feel that they've done the right thing, and here's this little upstart civil rights agency telling them that they've made these blunders and haven't been paying close enough attention. Who are we to do that?”
Indeed. The ERC has sued companies such as Archstone-Smith, a large, formerly public REIT based in Englewood, Colo.; Trammell Crow Co., a Dallas-based apartment owner and builder; and The Bozzuto Group, a Greenbelt, Md.-based developer long considered one of the most ethical firms in the industry. It has forced each firm to settle—and those settlements weren't cheap. Archstone, for one, spent more than $20 million to fix 12,000 units, and also paid $1.4 million in legal fees.
But that isn't all that makes Kahn controversial. Although his religious-like fervor for fair housing isn't disputed, his methods certainly are. On one hand, he expresses a desire to come together and have “the industry rush toward us as we rush toward them.” On the other hand, many people who have dealt with him say his organization won't back off of demands of total accessibility and sincerely compromise during the litigation process. This is a story of a how a one-man act has changed the face of real estate in America—it's a story that began with a rabbi.
COMMITTED TO THE CAUSE If it seems like Kahn has a zealot-like approach to fair housing and accessibility, it's because he does. “I think he's very passionate and committed to providing accessible housing,” says Sharon Dworkin Bell, senior staff vice president for multifamily housing at the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Home Builders. “He truly believes it's an area in which he [can] make a significant impact.”
Spend five minutes with Kahn and you'll soon see why. In one breath, Kahn admonishes Americans for their treatment of people with disabilities as the “most flagrant, in-your-face discrimination in the country today.” In the next, he says that putting stairs in front of an apartment community is equivalent to placing a “blacks not allowed” sign in front of a restaurant. The comparison seems outrageous, but the passion seems sincere.
Kahn says it was his rabbinical training that taught him the importance of fighting injustice. “When I look at the anti-Semitism, bigotry, and violence that have been upon us for 2,000 years, you cannot miss the point that we have a responsibility to all of us to restore the broken fragments of our world to wholeness,” Kahn says. “Discrimination is a fragmented force. We want to move the world to wholeness, prevent illegal discrimination before it happens, and repair the damage caused by it.”
Kahn, who has five degrees ranging from a bachelor's in English literature to a master of arts in Hebrew letters (none are in law), was in the Navy in the early '70s when the military “was getting serious about discrimination.” Those 28 years, during which he advised commands about eliminating discrimination, made a big impact. Discrimination in housing, in particular, intrigued the rabbi. “Housing is the portal to better work, better opportunities for employment, and more choices for education,” he says.
Kahn first made fair housing his calling in 1976, when, fresh from active duty as a Navy chaplain, he met a congregation member named Barbara Wurtzel (now Rabin). She was the executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), a Richmond, Va.-based non-profit focused on fighting discrimination in housing. “I was enamored with the work she was doing,” he says. “She recruited me to be a volunteer tester.”
When Kahn arrived in the capital in 1980, he settled in as the rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Md., and began advocating for fair housing. Three years later, he joined forces with clergymen from six different dominations to form the Fair Housing Council (three of those original members, including Kahn, are still active). Its mission was to educate the public on all forms of discrimination in housing and fight against acts of discrimination.