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HUD Archives: News Releases

HUD No. 97-278
Further Information:For Release
In the Washington, DC area: 202/708-1420Tuesday
Or contact your local HUD officeNovember 25, 1997


WASHINGTON -- Secretary Andrew Cuomo today announced that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has filed housing discrimination charges against the owners and managers of an apartment complex in Richmond, VA who are accused of refusing to rent to African Americans.

The action is part of a nationwide crackdown on housing discrimination ordered by President Clinton on Sept. 30.

HUD's investigation found several white tenants who said that the on-site apartment manager, Rita Baines Lewis, boasted to white tenants that she was "keeping the niggers out." Lewis no longer works at the 160-unit Wedgewood Village Apartments.

One white tenant said Lewis ordered her to tell her son to stop bringing black friends to visit him at Wedgewood. Another white tenant who provided childcare in her apartment said Lewis told her to refuse to care for black children.

"The Fair Housing Act says every family in this nation has the right to live in any neighborhood and in any home they can afford to buy or rent," Cuomo said. "Housing discrimination is an ugly part of America's past that has no place in our present or future. It's outrageous, it's illegal and it's intolerable."

HUD filed civil charges against Lewis, the apartment management company and the owners of the apartments alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act for discriminating against prospective black tenants. In addition, HUD issued an order today barring Lewis from employment by any company that receives HUD housing assistance for one year.

The owners and other managers charged are: Richmond 10-72 Ltd., Provident Group Co., Provident United Inc., Michael Braunstein, John W. Helgerson and Heinz Richter.

Wedgewood Village Apartments is a HUD-insured development under the Section 236 program, which provides subsidies to landlords who rent to low- and moderate-income families. Those subsidies will not be affected by today's charges, to avoid harming residents living at Wedgewood. However, HUD will prevent the owners and managers from receiving new HUD assistance for additional housing developments until problems at Wedgewood are fully resolved.

Father Joseph Hacala, S.J., a Special Assistant to Cuomo for Interfaith Community Outreach, appeared at a Richmond news conference to discuss Fair Housing Act complaints filed by two African Americans -- Larry B. Hall, Jr. and Rokena Dunaway -- who were denied apartments at Wedgewood Village because of their race. A complaint was also filed by a private non-profit group called Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME).

Hall said that when he tried to apply for an apartment last March, Lewis told him falsely that to live in the complex a person had to be either a single parent, a Social Security recipient, or handicapped. He said Lewis did not provide him with an application. Later, he said he learned from a white friend living at Wedgewood that a white applicant was not given the same requirements and was given an application.

Rokena Dunaway, a mother of two children, said she was discriminated against when she sought to rent an apartment at Wedgewood in January. Dunaway said Lewis told her she would need an income above $20,000 and that she would be on a waiting list for three to six months to get an apartment. She said white applicants were given identical two-bedroom apartments ahead of her without a wait. She was finally given an apartment in August, 1997 after Lewis left her job at Wedgewood.

HOME sent three black women and three white women to Wedgewood, posing as prospective tenants. The women, who represented themselves as married with one or two children, found a consistent pattern of discrimination.

For example, in a pattern repeated in each case, one test found that a black woman asking Lewis about an apartment was discouraged from applying. The black woman said Lewis told her there were places where "no blacks who valued their lives would go" and said "there's just some places you don't go." Lewis also said it could be months or years before there was an opening, according to the tester.

Twenty minutes later, a white woman arrived at Wedgewood. She said Lewis assured her there would be an apartment available the next month and suggested the white woman complete an application.

The charges announced today mean that HUD will take legal action to end the discriminatory practices at Wedgewood and obtain financial relief for people who have been harmed by the discrimination. The parties to the legal action have the choice of having their case heard by an administrative law judge or in U.S. District Court.

A finding by an administrative law judge that the Fair Housing Act has been violated carries a top penalty of $11,000 in civil penalties for the first offense and $55,000 for later offenses; monetary compensation to victims for actual damages, humiliation, mental distress, and loss of their fair housing rights; and attorney fees and court costs. A finding by a federal court of a violation may include an assessment of punitive damages, as well as compensation for victims.

"Many victims of housing discrimination don't realize they've been discriminated against, and many people are unfamiliar with the Fair Housing Act," Cuomo said. "We want to alert people that HUD, fair housing groups and state and local agencies will work to make sure their legal right to be free from discrimination is enforced."

People who believe they have been harmed by housing discrimination can file complaints with HUD. HUD operates a toll-free national hotline to take complaints, in both English and Spanish, at 1-800-669-9777.

During President Clinton's first term, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reached out-of-court settlements on 6,517 housing discrimination cases. The Department took enforcement actions on 1,085 cases, in which HUD issued housing discrimination charges or referred cases to the Department of Justice. HUD obtained $17.8 million in compensation for housing discrimination victims during the President's first term.

The Fair Housing Act bars housing discrimination on account of race, color, religion, sex, disability, family status and national origin.

The Act covers the sale, rental, financing and advertising of almost all housing in the nation. Fair housing investigations are conducted by HUD investigators, state and city agencies working with HUD, and private fair housing groups that receive HUD funds.

If an investigation shows that illegal housing practices have occurred and the parties will not settle, the Department issues charges like those announced today and legal action is taken.


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