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New Leases on Life : Justice Department cracks whip to assure open housing to all

August 12, 1993

In 1991, a nationwide study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that members of minority groups suffered pervasive racial and ethnic discrimination when they attempted to rent apartments or buy homes. HUD officials used 3,800 "tests" to obtain their data. That is the court-approved practice of sending out pairs of blacks and whites, or Latinos and Anglos, with similar credentials to seek the same apartments or homes.

Whether in San Diego or Bergen County, N.J., San Antonio or Detroit, the study found that blacks encountered racial bias more than half of the time and Latinos almost as often. Blacks and Latinos were falsely told that apartments had already been rented. They were quoted harsher financial terms, such as bigger rent deposits, while whites were offered special rates and incentives.

Based on the HUD study, the U.S. Justice Department promised to use testers to ferret out discrimination by landlords. The Congress had given the federal government the power to seek civil penalties and monetary damages for victims of housing discrimination in its 1989 amendments to the Fair Housing Act. Now, that enforcement effort has come to California, and the San Fernando Valley in particular. Federal prosecutors have filed a civil lawsuit seeking damages against the Parthenia Terrace Apartments in North Hills.

The suit claims that the Parthenia Terrace manager and owners imposed different terms and conditions for blacks, who were allegedly told, for example, that units were not available when in fact there were vacancies.

In Detroit, the first federal lawsuit spawned by the testing program has already obtained commendable results. A $350,000 settlement was negotiated with the owners of two apartment complexes there who had been accused of discriminating against blacks.

Given the apparent prevalence of such practices, the Justice Department's intervention is both welcome and necessary. It could boost similar efforts by local governments and fair housing groups here and around the nation.

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