Baltimore group alleges housing discrimination at Carroll County complex

Nonprofit claims that Westminster complex made more units available to white would-be renters

November 18, 2010|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore nonprofit organization that promotes equal housing opportunities filed a discrimination suit in federal court Wednesday claiming that a Carroll County apartment complex made fewer apartments available to black renters.

According to the suit, two black "testers" for Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. were told that only one unit at the Middlebrooke Apartments and Town Homes complex in Westminster was available. Two white "testers" who inquired the same day last August were told of between 12 and 14 current or forthcoming vacancies.

Housing discrimination has become rare in Baltimore City, said C. Christopher Brown, the attorney representing the nonprofit. "But when you look at the surrounding counties, you will see that there are more instances of discrimination in housing — not only racial discrimination, but discrimination with people with disabilities, family status discrimination," Brown said.

Baltimore Neighborhoods, which was founded in 1959 and has long been involved in combating housing discrimination in Baltimore, is asking that the court find Home Properties, a Rochester, N.Y., real estate investment trust company that owns the Westminster complex, in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The nonprofit is also seeking an undisclosed amount of "compensatory and punitive damages," along with attorney fees for itself as well as the two volunteer testers, Miller J. Roberts III and Tenyeh Dixon.

Rob Stein, an attorney for Home Properties, said that he was made aware of the suit Thursday and that the company had not yet been served with any papers regarding the suit.

Brown, a Baltimore attorney who has represented BNI for nearly 30 years, said this is the first housing discrimination suit BNI has filed in a decade. But Elijah Etheridge, who joined BNI as its executive director seven months ago, said that similar suits could be forthcoming.

"From what we're seeing, as we conduct more of these tests and more of these studies, as we're gathering the information and the evidence, it suggests to me that we may be filing more cases as time goes on," Etheridge said.

"The pattern that BNI sees is one of less and less racial discrimination in housing in the city, but more problems in this respect in the outlying counties, such as Carroll County and Frederick County," Brown said. "It [discrimination] still exists to a significant degree in the more rural parts [of Maryland] than in the metropolitan area, where it's been rarer and rarer to find."

Kelly Mahoney, testing coordinator for BNI, said that lawsuits are only pursued in the more egregious cases.

"We don't come across that many that are very obvious, and we don't file unless they are very obvious," she said.

Charis Warshof, vice president for investor relations for Home Properties, said the company owns 116 rental complexes from Maine to Northern Virginia, including 24 in the Baltimore area and three — Bonnie Ridge, Canterbury and Woodholme Manor — in Baltimore City. The Middlebrooke complex is one of three, along with Westbrooke and Ridgeview, in Westminster.

There have not been prior suits against the company claiming racial discrimination, and there are none pending, Warshof said after consulting with the company's legal department.

Brown said that the Middlebrooke complex was selected at random and not because of any specific complaint. Brown said that testers were also sent to other properties in Westminster, but the others were found to be in compliance with the Fair Housing Act, which was part of the Civil Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968.

The Fair Housing Act "prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians, pregnant women, and people securing custody of children under the age of 18), and handicap (disability)."

According to Mahoney, the testers went in separately, a few hours apart. They were all given the same questions to ask for "a normal encounter for someone looking at renting an apartment."

Mahoney said that BNI has conducted 50 such tests in the past four months and close to 150 this year involving possible discrimination based on race, disabilities and family status. (Family status involves whether a housing complex allows children.) Of the 16,000 complaints BNI receives each year regarding all forms of housing discrimination, the majority are based on disability, Mahoney said,

Brown said that he has filed "around 40" lawsuits in the nearly three decades representing BNI, but only a few have been for racial discrimination.

BNI was established in 1959, nine years before the Fair Housing Act was signed into law.

"If you go back to 1958, 1959, Baltimore city looked a little different than what it looks like today," Etheridge said. "This organization, along with clergy and other community organizations, really made an effort to address the issue of integration. … I think it's a very proud thing that we all can say that Baltimore City has really dealt with that issue that people were confronted with 50 years ago.

"But when you look at the surrounding counties, you will see that there are more instances of discrimination in housing — not only racial discrimination, but discrimination with people with disabilities, sex discrimination. These are things we're seeing all the time."

don.markus.@baltsun.com

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