Saying that blacks are underrepresented in Baltimore-area housing ads, a watchdog group is filing discrimination complaints against three housing providers it alleges are the most "egregious violators."
The complaints by the fair housing advocacy group Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. stem from its yearlong study, which concluded that the bulk of printed advertisements by 106 area senior housing facilities showed only white people.
The complaints -- in which BNI is joined by two elderly African-Americans -- are being filed with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, the organization said.
"The use of all white models ... sends an offensive and exclusive message, an insulting message to blacks," said Beth Pepper, an attorney for Baltimore Neighborhoods.
Officials with the advocacy group are basing the cases on the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal for landlords to pick their tenants based on race, and a Maryland fair-housing law that makes it illegal to rent or sell housing based on advertising that "indicates preference, limitation or discrimination based on race."
One of the complaints filed yesterday alleges that Shelter Group, of the 200 block of N. Charles St., regularly used only white models in advertisements for four of its senior living developments in the city. The company said yesterday that it takes diversity seriously and that a "diverse population" is readily seen on its corporate Web page.
"The Shelter Group takes very seriously its responsibilities under the state and federal fair housing laws," said Phil Golden, president of Shelter Properties. "We were surprised and disappointed that BNI chose to file this claim without ever talking with us. We are proud of our history of serving every segment of the Baltimore community."
Two other complaints of similar discrimination were to be filed by today by BNI against the owners of the Mercy Ridge retirement community in Timonium and Genesis Health Ventures Inc., owner of Atrium Village retirement community in Owings Mills.
"Mercy Ridge takes seriously our responsibilities under the law and does not discriminate," said Eddy Herbert, executive director of Mercy Ridge Inc. and an employee of Cooperative Retirement Services of America, which handles advertising for Mercy Ridge.
Lisa Salamon, a spokeswoman for Genesis, said the company is "both confused and upset" by the claim because 20 percent of its current ads feature African-Americans, reflecting the Owings Mills demographic.
"We have a strong nondiscrimination policy," Salamon said. "We think [the complaint] is without merit."
Pepper said the BNI complaints will be asking the owners and managers of the six senior living areas to stop using all-white ads and use proportional racial representation. The housing advocacy group -- joined by Edna E. Pruce and William Ray, described as senior home seekers -- will seek "compensatory and punitive damages."
The amount of any damages must be determined in court. Pepper said she is optimistic that the cases will succeed and pointed to a precedent-setting Maryland case involving Winchester Homes Inc.
In 1994, a Baltimore Circuit Court jury ordered Winchester, a Prince George's County-based developer, to pay more than $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages to BNI and plaintiff Kim Fenwick-Schafer. The complaint alleged that the developer discouraged prospective black homebuyers by using only white models in advertising during the late 1980s.
The verdict was one of the largest stemming from a suit filed under the federal Fair Housing Act and came two years after a similar suit brought by Fenwick-Schafer and BNI against Sterling Homes Corp., which was dismissed. Officials at BNI said yesterday that the complaints send an important message.
"When an ad for a retirement community has pictures of senior citizens happily enjoying the amenities of the facility, I naturally look to see whether the group depicted has members of different ethnic groups, most particularly African-Americans," Norma Griner, a 72-year-old African-American BNI board member, wrote in a statement she read aloud yesterday at the announcement of the study results.
"Their absence implies to me that ... there are no African-Americans at this facility and ... they probably are not welcome."
Elizabeth Toland, president of BNI, said she doesn't know of proof that all-white advertising deters elderly blacks from applying for housing in senior communities. But she added, "Advertising for senior housing isn't any different than other advertising" in that it sends a specific message to a target audience.
The BNI study found that of the 365 advertisements using human models, 63 percent used only white models, 20 percent were racially mixed and 5 percent used exclusively black models.
At least 50 issues of 21 publications, including The Sun, Jewish Times, El Heraldo de Maryland, Asian Fortune and Senior Digest, were reviewed by BNI.