After William Armstrong was told to leave his Silver Spring apartment in 1977 along with a dozen other black tenants, he filed a complaint with the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission, hoping to learn whether the action involved racial bias. But instead of answers, Armstrong and three others who complained have waited four years for a resolution.
This week their cases were postponed again after two nights of hearings. "This is hard to believe," said Armstrong, shaking his head in dismay as he sat poring over financial records he carried in a worn shopping bag.
Michele West Ward, another who filed a complaint, said of her testimony during the hearing, "It was really awful, having to relive all that again. To me, this is obvious. We were discriminated against. This should have been over a long time ago."
The director of the commission says these cases are unusual as most take only six months to resolve. But he complains that his staff is overworked and turnover is rapid, both problems that delayed this case.
Armstrong and the others have alleged that they were told to vacate the Eldorado Towers Apartments because Shannon and Luchs, the managing agent for the complex, wanted to decrease the number of black residents. At this week's hearings, Elizabeth Burke, a former rental clerk for the apartment complex, testified she was told to tell black applicants there were no vacancies when in fact several apartments were vacant.
But an attorney for the Washington-based realty firm said the four were bad tenants and paid their rent late or not at all, and violated other lease agreements. The attorney, Michael Blackstone, produced court records that showed Ward was sued for nonpayment of rent four times in 1977 and paid her rent late seven other months that year.
Blackstone denied there had been racial bias. He also said the apartment turned down only one black applicant from December 1977 to August 1978, the period under scrutiny.
The commission has taken two preliminary actions, ruling in November 1978 and January 1979 that there are reasonable grounds to believe discrimination had occurred.
The two sides then tried to resolve their differences. Because they were unsuccessful, the case was given to the commission's housing panel, which was supposed to schedule a speedy public hearing.
But the panel was backlogged and did not schedule a hearing until two years had passed.
"It can become very unfair to the complainant because the new cases go to the bottom of the pile . . . . A lot of people are surprised that the process is actually as involved as it is," said commission investigator Sheila Sullivan.
Because of the years of delay, Shannon and Luchs twice asked that the case be dismissed.
"The HRC is charged to be timely and it hasn't complied with its own human relations laws," Blackstone said. "If this had been handled expeditiously, we would have disposed of this case years ago."
The commission has six investigators and handles about 130 cases yearly, barely one-tenth of the number of complaints that are received, said Michael Dennis, the commission's compliance director.
One of the complainants' lawyers, Colleen Boothby, said she would have taken the case directly to federal court if she had known the proceedings would have dragged on so long. "A speedy administrative remedy is better than a court, but if it gets bogged down, it fails to serve that function," she said.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Jan. 28, but commission officials said a resolution could take another two months. The four complainants are seeking $22,000 in damages from costs they incurred after receiving notices to vacate their apartments.
Armstrong continues to live in the apartments, pending a decision on the case. The others have moved to new lodgings.
A civil suit has been filed by the complainants in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. In addition to seeking the same monetary damages, it seeks to have the apartment complex monitored periodically by the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association.