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The Subtler Tones of Bias

September 04, 2003

In issuing a preliminary injunction barring real estate magnate Donald Sterling from using "Korean" in the names of his apartment buildings, U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz sent an unambiguous message to landlords regionwide: Housing discrimination, however subliminal, will not be tolerated.

Sterling, better known as the owner of pro basketball's Los Angeles Clippers, owns about 100 apartment buildings in Southern California. In February, the Housing Rights Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of 12 tenants and one would-be renter at a building at 691 Irolo St. that Sterling recently purchased and renamed Korean World Towers.

Sterling likened the name change to putting "Santa Monica" in the names of his properties in Santa Monica. But in court papers described in a story in Saturday's Times, the judge chided him for not making a distinction between a geographical location -- Koreatown -- and the word Korean.

Matz wrote that in a neighborhood where "uneasy relations among different racial and immigrant groups still prevail," many residents would understandably see the name change as "a coded message: Koreans and Korean Americans are welcome and preferred; others are not."

Southern California is full of neighborhoods where uneasy relations still exist between fill-in-the-blank groups. With roots in the civil rights movement, fair housing laws historically focused on whites who denied housing to blacks. Recent years have brought a surge in complaints against immigrant landlords who refuse to rent to people outside their group. In San Diego County, Latino, Filipino and Vietnamese landlords have come under fire. Fair housing advocates in Los Angeles County tell of immigrants from one Mexican state renting only to immigrants from that state.

By law, people can't be barred from living where they want because of their race, religion, ethnic background, gender, children or mental or physical disabilities. But fair housing laws haven't stopped some landlords from using subtler methods to discriminate that can be difficult for tenants to prove. It's dismayingly routine for applicants with the "wrong" accent or skin color, for example, to be told that all advertised apartments have been rented -- at least until the "right" person turns up.

This allegation of housing discrimination against Sterling drew the spotlight because he's the owner of the Clippers; Sterling has denied the allegations. More important about the court's injunction is its admonition against even the most subtle forms of discrimination. That's a forceful warning to landlords -- and a promising sign that Southern California may yet learn to live with its differences.

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