Assisted-living center, group settle bias dispute

Complaint focused on ads with mostly white models


December 22, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore fair housing watchdog group has settled a dispute with a Carroll County assisted-living center over allegations that the facility discriminated against a potential black applicant by using mostly white models in its advertising.

Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a statewide fair housing advocate, and William Ray, 79, of Odenton agreed last week to a $22,000 settlement with Golden Crest Assisted Living of the 800 block of Fairfield Ave. in Westminster.

"It's a success on everybody's part and good for Golden Crest, too," said Baltimore attorney C. Christopher Brown, representing BNI and Ray. "We think that diverse advertising is good for business. This will bring more people knocking on Golden Crest's door."

Golden Crest offered the money to help BNI further its fair housing mission and to provide monetary relief for Ray, a retired music instructor who used to teach at Howard University.

"Golden Crest still believes it really did not do anything wrong in its advertising," said Thomas P. Kimmitt Jr., attorney for the company. "But we want to honor the law. They decided to work out an arrangement to try to make all the parties happy as possible."

In a complaint filed with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations in May, Brown wrote that Golden Crest violated fair housing practices by "engaging in a long-term, general pattern of intentionally favoring and employing all-white advertising directed toward prospective residents."

Brown said that about 130 communities for the elderly were the subject of a yearlong survey conducted by BNI in 2003. Reviewing at least 50 issues of 21 publications - including The Sun - BNI found 365 advertisements that depicted models. Of those, 63 percent used only white models, 20 percent were racially mixed and 5 percent used exclusively black models, according to the survey.

BNI Executive Director Joseph Coffey said 11 complaints had been filed as a result of the study, including one against Golden Crest. The company ran nine ads with all-white models - although one of the ads featured a black staff person. Coffey said the group doesn't consider that a welcoming ad.

He said that after letters were sent to the senior housing providers included in the survey to point out the lack of diversity in their ads, the providers were scrutinized again to see whether they had improved.

Coffey said that Golden Crest did not alter its advertising, running 13 more all-white ads.

"When there was no improvement in their advertising, we decided to file a formal complaint," Coffey said.

Brown said the advertising sent a negative message to retirement-home seekers such as Ray.

"Our contention is having all-white ads is the equivalent of saying `Whites Only' in terms of who's preferred," Brown said.

Kimmitt said his client - who began with one assisted-living facility in Carroll 15 years ago - now owns three assisted-living facilities in the county with a total of about 45 beds. Kimmitt said the owners never received the letter from BNI.

`No record' of letter

"The owners have no record of ever receiving it. We wish we had gotten that. All this could have been averted a long time ago," Kimmitt said.

He said his clients entered into the current agreement with BNI in good faith.

Kimmitt said the company has agreed to publish ads featuring an equal number of black models and white models.

He said Golden Crest has no African-American residents and that he is unsure whether African-Americans have ever applied. He attributed the lack of black residents to Carroll's low African-American population - 2.3 percent.

Coffey said that rationale is flawed.

"Even if you are in an all-white community, if you advertise to an all-white community using all-white models, you perpetuate a segregated community," Coffey said. "You have to cross the line at some point. You should show you're open to other types of people applying."

Three complaints

Last year, the advocacy group filed complaints against three senior housing providers based on the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal for landlords to pick tenants based on race, and a Maryland fair-housing law that makes it illegal to rent or sell housing using advertising that "indicates preference, limitation or discrimination based on race."

Ray and his wife own their home, but have been searching for a retirement home, their attorney said.

Brown said that Ray was named as a co-complainant in three other complaints filed with the Human Relations Commission because of the survey results.

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