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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The owners and managers of a Richmond, Virginia, apartment complex who were accused of refusing to rent to African Americans have agreed to a $480,000 settlement -- the largest settlement ever in a rental discrimination case in Virginia, the Justice Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced today.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo and Bill Lann Lee, Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, made the announcement at a Richmond news conference.

Today's agreement, filed in U.S. District Court in Richmond, requires the owners and managers of Wedgewood Village Apartments to pay $480,000 in damages and civil penalties for allegedly discouraging African Americans from renting apartments for the past eight years. Additionally, the owners and managers have agreed to develop a fair housing policy, require their employees to attend fair housing training, and hire an independent consulting firm to conduct self-testing of the apartment complex over the next three years.

"This settlement should send a message to everyone that HUD and the Justice Department will strictly and vigorously enforce the law to protect the rights of every family in this nation to live in any neighborhood and in any home they can afford," Cuomo said. "Housing discrimination is an ugly part of American history that has no place in this nation today."

"Denying individuals housing on the basis of their race will not be tolerated," said Mr. Lee. "This case is an example of how discrimination can and will be detected in spite of a housing provider's attempt to conceal it ."

Cuomo added that HUD will be able to continue moving aggressively against housing discrimination as the result of an increase in the budget of its Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity from $30 million in the 1998 fiscal year to $40 million in the year that began on October 1, 1998. HUD began a crackdown against housing discrimination last year.

The agreement, which must be approved by the court, requires the owners and managers of Wedgewood to pay $480,000 in damages, including: $200,000 to compensate any persons identified as victims of the alleged discrimination; $195,000 to Housing Opportunities Made Equal, Inc. of Richmond (HOME), a fair housing group which tested the apartment complex; $45,000 to compensate two African Americans who filed complaints; and, $40,000 in civil penalties to the U.S. Treasury.

The defendants, all of whom agreed to the terms of the settlement, include Richmond 10-72, Ltd., Provident United Inc., Provident Group Co., John W. Helgerson, Michael Braunstein, all of Columbus, Ohio, and Rita Baines Lewis of Richmond.

"This case is an example of how the citizens of Virginia will not stand idly by when they discover a housing provider is discriminating," said U.S. Attorney Helen Fahey. "In this case, citizens stepped forward when they believed others were being denied housing because of their race."

Larry B. Hall, Jr. and Rokena Dunaway, who filed complaints with HUD, said they were denied apartments at Wedgewood because they are black.

Hall said that when he tried to apply for an apartment he was told falsely by an apartment employee that to live in the complex a person had to be either a single parent, a Social Security recipient, or handicapped. He said he was not given 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.

Dunaway, a mother of two children, said she was discriminated against when she sought to rent an apartment at Wedgewood. Dunaway said she was told 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 after six months.

Discrimination was also alleged by HOME, which 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.

The investigation into the practices of Wedgewood began after HOME received complaints from white tenants of the apartment complex alleging that management was discouraging African-Americans from applying for apartments there.

Last November, HUD issued a charge of discrimination on behalf of HOME, Dunaway and Hall against the management and owners of Wedgewood. HUD also issued an order that barred Lewis from employment by any company receiving HUD housing assistance and blocked the owners and managers of Wedgewood from receiving new financial assistance for housing developments until problems there were fully resolved.

The matter was referred to the Justice Department, which filed the case on behalf of the two individuals. The Justice Department later expanded the case to allege that the defendants engaged in a broader pattern of discrimination.

The government alleged that evidence obtained from persons who applied for apartments and persons who lived at the apartment complex showed that the defendants engaged in a pattern of discrimination in the rental of apartments for a period of over eight years.

Individuals who believe they may have been victims of housing discrimination at Wedgewood Village Apartments should call the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section of the Justice Department at 1-800-896-7743.

People who believe they have been harmed by housing discrimination can file complaints with HUD at 1-800-669-9777.