When Amelia Hunter was looking for a new apartment last year, she said, she answered a newspaper ad and was told on the phone that she could come by to see one. But when she got to the entrance of the Eddystone Apartments near Thomas Circle NW, Hunter said, a voice on the intercom said there was no apartment available.
"That was pretty insulting," said Hunter, who is black. "I wasn't sure then, but I thought there might be discrimination."
That incident on a rainy March day led to a lawsuit and eventually to a consent order, filed recently in U.S. District Court, under which the owners and managers of the Eddystone promise to comply with fair housing laws and to take disciplinary action against any employe who discriminates against blacks.
The signers of the decree include Waggaman-Brawner Realty of Silver Spring, one of the area's largest managers of rental property; the Eddystone's owners, Jeffrey and Robert Scholz, and Steven Ahl, resident manager of the building.
All three defendants deny the accusations of wrongdoing in the order. Waggaman-Brawner and the Scholzes said that if any discrimination did occur it was not authorized by them. Ahl said about half the Eddystone's 96 tenants are black. Under the order, the plaintiffs, who include the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association, a nonprofit group, are to get $42,000 to settle all claims for damages and attorney fees.
"This should remind us all that racial discrimination is not just a thing of the past," said Larry F. Weston, director of the housing group. "Fair housing policies must be monitored aggressively to ensure equal access for all."
Weston said the settlement was the largest of its kind in the Washington area. Hunter, who works for the United Planning Organization, said in court papers that she went to the Eddystone several days after she was turned away and was told again by Ahl that no unit was available.
The lawsuit says that the Fair Housing Association subsequently sent two white testers to the building and that Ahl showed vacant apartments to both and asked if they wanted to rent them. A black tester was turned away, the complaint said.
The consent order, which was approved by U.S. District Court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, was filed less than a week before a trial was scheduled to begin.
In a separate action in January involving the same case, the D.C. Office of Human Rights found "probable cause" that discrimination had occurred.
Yesterday, Thomas J. O'Donnell, the president of Waggaman-Brawner, declined to comment on the case. His attorney, Kenneth Loewinger, declared that the firm "will obey the law, which is what they have been doing all along."
Neither the Scholzes nor their lawyers could be reached for comment. However, Ahl, who is white, said he had been fired as resident manager by the realty firm on March 18, about two weeks before the settlement, and replaced by a black manager.
Ahl, 31, said that he had been manager of the Eddystone for two years and had rented apartments there to about as many blacks as whites.
He said he did not know what race Hunter was when he first spoke to her through the intercom. On her second visit, when they met face-to-face, he said, he told her no apartment was available because he had accepted four applications for a vacant unit.
"I've never denied an apartment to anyone because of their race," Ahl declared.