South Suburban Housing Center wins $450,000 in cash and rent credits in Illinois race case

Late in April, the South Suburban Housing Center (SSHC) and three African-Americancomplainants negotiated a settlement worth $450,000 in monetary damages, civil penalties,and rent credits following a day-long session in front of a federal mediator. Thesettlement resolved claims of racial discrimination against the owners and managers ofForest Hills Apartments in Oak Forest, Illinois and Commercial Avenue Apartments in SouthChicago Heights, Illinois. It is the largest award ever obtained in a suit filed by SSHC.

Accordingto the Consent Order, $220,000 in cash will be paid to the three complainants and theSouth Suburban Housing Center. $80,000 will be set aside in a special fund to compensateunidentified discrimination victims. Rent credits worth $40,000 will be given to the SSHC.Rent credits worth $60,000 will be set aside for unidentified victims of discrimination.Finally, a $50,000 civil penalty included in the settlement will also be paid in rentcredits to be administered by the Department of Justice.

SSHC's federal lawsuit was filed in July 1996 after they received a complaint from anAfrican-American woman who asserted that she had been denied an apartment at CommercialAvenue without reason. SSHC sent testers to the 62-unit Commercial Avenue complex and the160-unit Forest Hills complex which were owned and managed by the same company. SSHCuncovered evidence that African-American renters were being turned away at CommercialAvenue and being given different rental terms at Forest Hills.

All parties involved in the suit agreed to try to resolve the case in front of afederal mediator in January 1997. Before the mediation began, SSHC showed a 13-minutevideo produced by Bernard Kleina and the HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, Illinois.The video was produced to show the personal and emotional distress suffered by the threewomen who had been discriminated against at the defendants' apartment complexes. Afteronly one day of mediation, the defendants agreed to settle the complaints. John Petruszak,director of SSHC, said that he believes the video "played a major role in the quicksettlement and the extent of damages awarded."

Both Petruszak and James Burns, the US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois,said they liked the idea of having a portion of the settlement paid in rent credits. Thecredits will allow SSHC and the Justice Department to place qualified individuals inapartments at any of the defendants' complexes with free or reduced rent.

Petruszak said that housing providers should take notice of this settlement."Hopefully," he said, "the extent of damages awarded in this case will makeother housing providers think twice before implementing discriminatory practices that haveprevented African-Americans from moving to these particular communities."

Copies of the HOPE video, entitled "What Are You Doing Here?" A HousingDiscrimination Case Study, are available for $30 each (plus $3.50 postage andhandling) by writing to HOPE Fair Housing Center, 2100 Manchester Rd., Suite 1070, Bldg.B, Wheaton, IL 60187.

The three plaintiffs and the SSHC were represented by Jeffrey Taren, a Chicagoattorney.