WASHINGTON – The Justice Department today announced that landlord James Stevens, his company Fountain View Apartments Inc., and his former rental manager, Mildred Chastain, have agreed to pay $415,000 in monetary damages and civil penalties to settle a Fair Housing Act lawsuit alleging that they discriminated against African Americans and families with children at Fountain View Apartments, a 42-unit apartment complex in Orange City, Fla.
Under the consent decree, which must still be approved by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, the defendants must pay $175,000 to nine individuals identified by the United States as victims of defendants’ discriminatory conduct, $140,000 to three plaintiff-intervenors, and $100,000 to the United States as a civil penalty. In addition, the consent decree prohibits the defendants from engaging in discrimination and requires Fountain View Apartments Inc. to retain an independent manager to manage the property.
"Equal access to housing is a basic necessity and a civil right, and the Fair Housing Act guarantees that all individuals can access that right free from discrimination," said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. "This settlement will ensure that the equal housing opportunities required by law are provided at Fountain View Apartments and send a message to all housing providers that we have no tolerance for discrimination based on race or color or familial status."
"It is immensely important that the Department of Justice is working so hard to stop this unfair treatment and penalize those who engage in housing discrimination in our District and nationwide," stated A. Brian Albritton, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida.
The case began when Lewarna Williams, an African American woman, visited Fountain View with her grandson and a friend and inquired about the availability of apartments. Defendant Chastain told her that there were no vacancies. Ms. Williams requested an application and was given one, but Defendant Chastain refused to allow her to submit it. The application contained the notation "ADULTS ONLY" in the space designated for the number of children. Later the same day, Ms. Williams’ friend telephoned Fountain View to request information about apartment availability, and the female agent informed her that apartments were available. A local television station subsequently conducted a series of fair housing tests – simulated transactions to compare responses given by housing providers to different types of apartment-seekers to determine whether illegal discrimination is occurring – and found that the defendants were providing more information and better treatment to white persons than to African American persons.
Ms. Williams filed a fair housing complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). After investigating, HUD referred the matter to the Justice Department, which filed the lawsuit in June 2008. Ms. Williams and others intervened in the lawsuit as plaintiffs.
"This case underscores the importance of fair housing testing in uncovering differences in the way people or different racial backgrounds are treated when they visit some apartment complexes," said John Trasviña, HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. "HUD will continue to use fair housing testing to bring to light the discriminatory practices that still deny too many Americans equal housing opportunities."
In December 2009, the court, ruling on a motion filed by the United States, found that the defendants had violated the Fair Housing Act by engaging in a pattern or practice of discrimination against families with children. Had the remainder of the case gone to trial, the United States was prepared to show that the defendants also discriminated against African Americans by, among other things, telling white persons that a selling point of the apartment complex is that Fountain View does not have any black residents; denying the availability of apartments to African American persons while at the same time telling white persons about available apartments; refusing to show apartments to African American persons while at the same time showing apartments to white persons; discouraging African American persons from applying for an apartment while encouraging white persons to apply; refusing to negotiate with African American prospective tenants for rental; threatening to evict one or more tenants who were known or believed to have African American friends and associates; and making statements with respect to the rental of apartments at Fountain View indicating a preference, a limitation, or discrimination because of race or color. Today’s settlement resolves these claims.
The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and familial status. Individuals who believe that they may have been victims of housing discrimination should call the Housing Discrimination Tip Line (1-800-896-7743) or e-mail the Justice Department at firstname.lastname@example.org. Such persons may also contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at 1-800-669-9777.
Fair housing enforcement is a priority of the Civil Rights Division. More information about the Civil Rights Division and the laws it enforces is available at www.justice.gov/crt.