Two suburban Detroit apartment complexes agreed to pay $350,000 in the first settlement under the Justice Department's new nationwide random testing program. The June settlement gave the department a civil penalty of $125,000, their largest ever in a housing discrimination suit. Testing by the Fair Housing Center of Metro Detroit and Justice showed the owners were refusing to rent to black applicants.
As a result of the success of the pilot program, which has produced five other Justice Department complaints in the Detroit area, James P. Turner, the acting chief of the department's Civil Rights Division, said the testing project would be expanded to about a half-dozen cities.
August Testing Suit Filed in L.A.
The Detroit settlement was followed in August by a Los Angeles suit against the owners and managers of an apartment complex in Sepulveda, California, based on testing evidence.
The L.A. suit was based on evidence of racial discrimination gathered by testers for the department and the Fair Housing Council of the San Fernando Valley. Paired groups of white and Black testers, who were given matching characteristics and credentials, inquired about the availability of apartments at the complex. African-American testers were treated uniformly less favorably and offered less favorable rental terms than white testers, according to the complaint.
The California suit charged Yung-Chung Shen, Ming Yuan Huang and Mai Ling Huang with discrimination against African-American prospective tenants.
Reporting on the Detroit settlement, the June 22, Washington Post said, "The program essentially amounts to an undercover 'sting' aimed at rooting out civil rights violators. Although, local agencies and news organizations have frequently used such methods in the past, the Justice Department tried it for the first time last year, when it hired a local fair housing advocacy group to send out pairs of black people and white people, equipped with secret body recorders, to pose as prospective tenants seeking to rent publicly advertised apartments."
The department said in a statement that at the six Detroit area complexes where they have filed complaints, the white testers were "uniformly" told of available units, while "all the black testers were told that no apartments were available."
"It's an enforcement tool for which there is precious little rebuttal," said Turner in an interview about the testing program. Using the secret tape recordings and the dates and times of the tests, "you can go in there (to the apartment owners) and lay it all out on a spreadsheet ... that's pretty compelling evidence."
The June settlement was against the owners and manager of Rivercrest Arms Apartments, a 268- unit complex in the predominantly white Clinton Township, and a smaller 18- unit complex in St. Clair Shores. In addition to the civil penalty, the owners will be required to make another $22-5,000 available to black applicants who were turned down and fund newspaper ads seeking to locate victims.
The department developed its proactive testing program after Congress, in 1988, amended the Fair Housing Act to authorize the department to seek civil penalties and monetary damages for victims of housing discrimination.
Akron Testing Suit Filed in April
"Random testing is a critical tool for identifying discrimination," Turner said, "because sometimes discrimination is so subtle victims don't know it's happening to them. If we only tested on the basis of complaints, we would not to be able to truly attack a covert problem."
The Department has been conducting fair housing testing in several cities throughout the country since 1992. The Detroit suit was the first filed in October 1992. In April 1993, Justice filed suit against the 300 unit Park Lane Manor co-op apartments in Akron, Ohio. They had been tested by Akron's Fair Housing Contact Service and the Justice Department.
Harry Shotts, manager of Detroit's Rivercrest Arms, called the department's testing program "tricky," saying that department officials "basically came to the conclusion they wanted to." Although he acknowledged that only one of the 268 units is rented by a black, he said this was because "they never come in" and apply. "We don't feel we were really guilty, but (the owners) felt it was better" to sign the settlement rather than fight the case in court.
In editorial support the August 12, Los Angeles Times said, "Given the apparent prevalence of such practices, the Justice Department's intervention is both welcome and necessary. It could boost similar efforts by local government and fair housing groups here and around the nation."