When Celia Espinoza tried to buy into a 160-unit Falls Church housing cooperative in April, the complex's directors turned her down flat. Their reason: Mrs. Espinoza, a Peruvian, is not a U.S. citizen.
Another applicant, Bacilisa O. Crevosier, was rejected although she has been a U.S. citizen for five years. She contends she met a blank with after the Falls Church association discovered she was a native of Mexico.
Both women complained to the Fairfax County Human rights Commission, alleging discriminaton based on their nationalities. The cases, now under consideration, are the first of their kind ever to reach the public hearing stage in the county, according to commisson staff members.
Both cases have drawn angry accusations from both sides.
"I'm absolutely appalled. I thought we went through this 20 years ago," says assistant country attorney Edward E. Rose of the Espinoza case. "I think it's quite clear that what we have here is a charade."
Not so, say leaders of the complex, the Hillwood Square Mutual Association. They acknowledge Espinoza and her husband were rejected April 7 because they are legal aliens, not citizens. hBut they defend the decision on grounds that aliens pose more of a financial risk than ciitizens and argue the policy is a matter of economics, not national origin.
"Aliens tend to be more transitory," says Peter Millspaugh, attorney for the association. "They come in and out of the country more frequently than citizens. If an alien goes abroad, the association has no way to collect its financial obligations."
Millspaugh adds that only one member of a couple must be a citizen under association rules -- proff, he says, that the complex's policy is nondiscriminatory.
Commission staff members say they also found evidence that the association rejects applicants if they do not speak English, a practice some association members were quick to defend.
Owning shares in a co-op involves group ownership of the entire complex, Milspaugh notes. "A co-op is a very fragile entity. We have the right to enhance its stability and financial accountability."
It was those financial concerns, Millspaugh says, that also led the association to reject Mrs. Crevosier last spring when she tried to buy a $21,000 co-op unit.
According to Crevosier, she offered to pay the purchase price in cash or to pay $3,000 more than the required downpayment. It was only when her nationally came up that her application was blocked, she says.
Crevosier contends that when she attended an interview with housing board they questioned her about why her last name was French when she did not look French.
"I told them that I was from Mexico but that my first husband was French.
Then they began to ask me if I knew that Mexicans were killing American tourists. I felt like crying. They were laughing about the way I talked and said I could not understand what they were saying," she says.
Tenant association board member Edward Stuebing acknowledges one interviewer made the comment about Mexicans killing Americans, but emphasizes it did not represent the association position.
"It was a dumb thing to say and Mrs. Crevosier took offense with reason," he says. "That was a comment made by a decent, nice guy who is not a bigot or anything, but had read something in the paper about tourists being killed that triggered a Pavlovian response."
As for Crevosier's presentation of the finacial facts, Stuebing says, "They are an absolute lie. Mrs. Crevosier didn't have the money; she would have had to borrow it. The first time we ever heard about the extra money was from the newspapers."
Stuebing says it is the association's unwritten policy that co-op owners not pay more than one-fourth of their salary for housing payments. At the time, Crevosier said she was making about $160 a week as a clerk. Stuebing says mortgage payments plus co-op fees would have run about $280 a month. Under the rules, Crevosier would not qualify, according to Stuebing. m
"If she had offered to pay for the condominium in cash, she would have ben accepted," he says.
But Crevosier says she later purchased a $35,000 condominium in Montgomery County. "I can prove I had plenty of money at the time I applied. The only reason she rejected me was because I am Mexican. I never thought this would happen in America."
At a public hearing last week, some commission members sharply criticized the association and demanded substantiation of its claims that economic considerations were the basis for rejecting Espinoza and Crevosier.
"Citizenship doesn't establish stability, does it?" asked chairman Gerald Hyland. "There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who skip out of their responsibilities. Being American doesn't necessarily mean being stable."
"A lot of people have drawn the same conclusions about some American minorities," added commission member jon d. Smith.
But Stuebing, complaining the agency is "trying to make a case out of this at all costs," suggested the commission may not get the substantiation it wants.