SHE STILL REMEMBERS the fear she felt when she opened her apartment door at 10:30 that April night and found three men bringing an eviction notice.
They told her she was being evicted because her children had been seen vandalizing their Silver Spring apartment building. When she tried to protest that they had not, the men, she recalls, began screaming at her until she couldn't think.
That eviction notice since has been recinded, but the woman has been told that the lease on her apartment won't be renewed when it expires July 31.
Now she has joined with other black tenants in the building who are preparing to file suit against the landlords for "a general pattern of harassment" they feel is discriminatory and designed to force them out. "It's like living under seige," says one of the residents. "We don't know what will happen next."
Since the three-building complex was sold last November, its new owners have raised the rent once and announced that another increase is on the way. They have doubled the amount of the security deposit. They tried unsuccessfully to evict 42 families, both black and white, charging that their children were vandals.
Now the owners have sent letters to renters, like the woman, who have families, announcing that their building will be for "adults-only." The families, 80 percent of whom are black, have been offered spots in another building, but it is the one that allows pets and is a mess, according to the tenants, who basically don't think they should be forced to move.
The owners deny that they are discriminating and, on the surface of it, it looks like they simply are trying to create an "adults-only" building, as more and more landlords are doing. But because so many black families are involved here, the lawyer for the tenants says the effect of the action will be discriminatory, and "that's clearly a violation of federal laws."
However, the "pattern of activity" against blacks goes beyond that, say the tenants, mostly middle-class professionals.
"There's a marvelous picture of two Confederate leaders hanging in a very prominent place in the foyer," says one resident, an executive with the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission. "This is 1980, not the Civil War period.Every black tenant resents that picture on the wall."
The complex's security force has been beefed up, making some residents feel uncomfortable. It's as if, one resident says, the owners want blacks to be invisible.
"Kids can't wait for the school bus in the lobby and they're not allowed to sit on the furniture," she says. "They have to wait outside in all kinds of weather or in the elevator bank."
The charges are under investigation by Montgomery County officials and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department. One of the owners says, "We're hoping the [complaint] will go to trial because it's very easy for someone to make a statement of discrimination and another thing to have it proven."
No matter what the merits are of the case of these tenants, blacks still face discrimination in the sale and rental of housing -- even 12 yeas after passage of the fair housing act. Much of the discrimination is subtle: a black person looking for a home to buy is steered to black or integrated neighborhoods rather than predominantly white ones. Blacks find they can't get home loans because banks and savings institutions have "redlined" their neighborhoods and won't make loans there.
The fair housing bill that passed the House last week is a step in the right direction because it would give the federal government strong powers to enforce its provisions. It's up to the Senate now to follow suit.
Sterling Tucker, the former chairman of the D.C. City Council, is now the HUD official in charge of tackling the problem and he is optimistic that it can be solved.
But I'm still skeptical. Despite the laws, despite the rhetoric, blacks remain among the poorest-housed people in the country. And maybe I'm thinking too much of that woman in Silver Spring who got a knock on her door late at night.