BALTIMORE, FEB. 18 -- A federal judge awarded $25,000 in damages today to a Washington woman who he said suffered racial discrimination when trying to rent a Landover Hills apartment, and blasted the development's management for steering black prospective renters to poorly maintained units in the rear of the complex.
U.S. District Judge Walter Black said brothers Max and Harry Kay, owners of the Lanham Terrace Apartments, "directed racial steering" at the seven-building development. The discrimination encountered in 1985 by Cynthia S. Bryant, who sued the Kays, was "too extreme" and "too consistent" to have been the sole responsibility of Nora Vaughan, then the resident manager of the apartments, Black said.
The Kays operate Kay Brothers Builders, headquartered in Bethesda, and own and manage other apartment complexes in the Washington area.
Bryant, a housing discrimination tester for the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington, filed the suit with the council's help. The judgment is one of the largest punitive awards in a tester case. Historically, testers were given smaller awards because they were not actually looking for places to live, said Kerry Alan Scanlon, who represented Bryant.
The judge said that while Bryant -- as a tester -- may not have suffered as much as other applicants for apartments, "being a tester does not insulate one" from the sting of discrimination.
Although 25 percent or more of Lanham Terrace residents were black, most of them were given apartments in the complex's rear buildings, which were not as well maintained as the front buildings, according to testimony at the trial last year. About 50 percent of tenants in the rear buildings and 15 percent in the front of the complex were black, according to evidence presented at the trial.
As a result, the judge said, black residents of Lanham Terrace "suffered the indignity of knowing that as a general rule" blacks were not allowed to rent apartments in buildings in the front section of the complex but were sent to buildings in the rear.
Because some Lanham Terrace tenants were black, "the court recognizes" that worse cases of discrimination have been found elsewhere, Black said.
The judge delivered his opinion orally Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The judge also awarded Bryant $500 in compensatory damages.
The judge found the defendants guilty of violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 in a default judgment last year after they repeatedly refused to respond to court orders. He then held a trial on the question of awarding damages. The defendants have hired another attorney and filed a motion asking Black to withdraw the default judgment. Black said he will rule on that motion in June, and will not make the awards final until then.
Bryant said she is "overjoyed" with the judge's decision.
"We're obviously pleased with the finding that there was pernicious racial steering," said Scanlon, of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The Kays' attorney, Stanley J. Brown, said the "case is not over yet" and that he expects his clients to be found innocent of discrimination.
During testing of 266 Washington area apartment complexes over nine months, a white tester went to Lanham Terrace on Aug. 10, 1985, and was told that several one-bedroom apartments would be available by Sept. 1 for $395 a month, according to the lawsuit.
"While the white tester was standing in the reception room, a black woman came in and inquired about one-bedroom apartments," and was told none was available, the lawsuit said.
When Bryant went to Lanham Terrace about an hour after the white tester left, she was told no units were available.
When Bryant asked again, Vaughan said one would be available Sept. 10 for $395 a month, but that the rent might rise to $420 a month soon.
In subsequent visits by testers, the Lanham Terrace operators continued to discriminate against black applicants, according to the lawsuit.
Five teams of testers carried out the 1985 tests, asking to see apartments that had been advertised for rent throughout the Washington area.
The testers on each team had similar incomes and backgrounds, wore similar clothes, and shared other characteristics except race. They found that black apartment seekers were likely to encounter racial bias more than half the time, the Fair Housing Council reported.