November 3, 1998
by Edmund Tsang
Nancy Bunin, executive director of Mobile Fair Housing Center (MFHC), said testers are "absolutely vital" to the organization's functions of educating and enforcing fair housing laws. "Anyone over [age] nineteen, regardless of race or sex or national origin, can be a tester if he or she can evaluate objectively whether fair housing laws have been violated in the test case assigned to him or her," Bunin explained. The volunteers receive training in a four-hour workshop, then they are sent out to test whether the impression presented to the public by a rental company or a landlord of being non-discriminatory matches the reality. "You have to remember that housing discrimination is no longer carried out overtly as in the past," Bunin added. "Housing discrimination is now done with a smile."
One of the tasks on the ten-month-old organization's priority list is to quantify how serious housing discrimination is in the Port City, according to Bunin. Despite two recent housing-discrimination lawsuits that were eventually settled out of court, Bunin said "We still don't have enough information to quantify it," which is the reason for the need for volunteer testers. "We do receive regular complaints," Bunin added. "We currently have 57 active files."
In June, 1998, the owners of five apartment complexes -- Springdale Stores, Inc., Delaney Development, Inc., Delaney Investment, Inc., and Delaney's Inc., which are the owners of Windsor Place, Pathways, Yester Oaks, Cabana, and Sandpiper Apartments -- settled a class-action lawsuit alleging housing discrimination against African- Americans that was joined by the U.S. Department of Justice.
According to Henry Brewster, an attorney for the plaintiffs, an agent of the Delaney properties approached him amidst publicity surrounding another housing discrimination court case (Lowman, et al vs. Mitchell Brothers, Inc.), and told him about the discriminatory practices. "The person is a floater who has worked at a number of the Delaney apartments, especially at the high end," Brewster explained. "The staff routinely discriminated against blacks, with instructions from the top, by either telling them there were no vacancies when in fact it wasn't true, or steering them to undesirable locations."
Brewster said the Justice Department, which was investigating the MBI case at the time, had also received complaints regarding the properties managed by the Delaneys. "At the same time, others were coming forward to us about their experience with the Delaney properties."
With the help of the Southern Law Poverty Center, which provided the funds to cover litigation costs, the case was eventually settled for $750,000. Under the terms of the settlement, Delaney will contract MFHC to train its staff about fair housing, among other compliance orders. Brewster said negotiations over the "technical language" of the settlement took the longest, while the money part of the settlement was "the least problem."
In Spring, 1998, Sizeler Real Estate Inc., which manages Lafayette Square Apartments, Hampton Park Apartments, Pine Bend Apartments, and Bel Air Apartments, settled lawsuits alleging discriminatory practices in its rental policies. Cecily Kaffer Rothrock, attorney for the plaintiffs, said she cannot discuss the terms of the settlement because they are confidential.
Records showed that a total of eighteen lawsuits were filed in state and federal courts alleging "a pattern or practice of discrimination in the rental of the Sizeler properties, by, inter alia, discouraging visits to the Sizeler properties by African Americans, discouraging applications for rental of the Sizeler properties by prospective African American tenants and giving false information to prospective tenants who visited or telephoned its properties whom defendants believed to be African American." The lawsuits also charge that "At all times, defendants refused to negotiate with African Americans on equal terms for the rental of apartments, and, when possible, refused to rent apartments to African Americans. On the occasions when defendants ultimately rented apartment units to African Americans, defendants maintained a pattern or practice of steering said African Americans to the least desirable apartment complexes and/or to the least desirable units within those complexes."
The MBI case, which was settled for $1.7 million in June, 1996 and led to the formation of MFHC, was a class-action lawsuit enjoined by the U.S. Department of Justice. The plaintiffs alleged that MBI used coded cards to identify African-Americans for discriminatory purposes in its rental policies.
Bunin explained in an interview last week that MFHC offers to area rental companies a free program to train their staff on fair housing. While there was initial hesitancy toward MFHC's overture, Bunin said "things have gotten better." "We have been working on opening the lines of communication to have a direct dialogue with the president of the Mobile apartment association," Bunin added, "and we are working with one of their executives to put articles in their newsletters." "A number of real estate companies have invited us to come to their meetings and make presentations to them," Bunin said. "They have lots of questions about our operations."
Asked whether the interest of the rental companies might be motivated by their design to "figure out" how MFHC assesses fair housing, Bunin laughed and replied, "I am sure they are curious, and that's understandable." Bunin said many of the rental or real estate companies have in-house trainers on fair housing or they hire consultants, many of them former HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development] officials, to do the training. "But we would like to be a part of that education process." The challenge would be convincing apartment owners that are not members of the Mobile apartment association. "There are a lot of small apartments in Mobile and the outlying county that make dreadful mistakes all the time, and they do need more education," Bunin said. "We would like to get the word out that they need to call us now, rather than have us call them later about a complaint. We have the hardest time reaching those people."
According to Bunin, while discrimination based on race still ranks number one among the complaints received by MFHC, discrimination against single women with children and people with disabilities are probably more widespread than reported because most people are ignorant of the laws, and just as serious.