The owners, manager and rental agent of a large Arlington apartment complex this week agreed to pay $80,000 in damages, plus court costs and attorneys' fees, to two black women and a Hispanic couple, under terms of a judgment approved by a federal judge. The four said in three separate lawsuits that the Shirley Park apartments had violated federal fair-housing and civil-rights laws by refusing to rent units to them because of race.
The Alexandria federal court judgment is believed to be the largest ever in a Washington-area housing discrimination case, according to attorney Rachel S. Susz, who represented Jamesenna Lundy, Linda Wilson and Silvia and Jorge Chavez in the lawsuits against the Shirley Park, an 826-unit complex at 1400 28th St. South in Arlington. In the suits, Wilson, Lundy and the Chavezes said Shirley Park owner Four Mile Property Co. Ltd., resident manager Jane Lawman and rental agent Bonnie Haas refused to rent apartments to them because of their race.
The Shirley Park defendents, who proposed the payment as part of an offer to have a judgment entered against them, do not admit they discriminated against the Chavezes, Lundy and Wilson, said Fred Alexander, the Shirley Park attorney. "Both the plaintiffs and the defendants are well out of what could have been a long and costly litigation," Alexander said.
The Shirley Park decision follows a similar discrimination lawsuit, in which the same federal judge, James C. Cacheris, ruled last week that the owners and manager of the Lloyd Apartments in Alexandria discriminated against William McGraw, who is white, and his wife LaTara, who is black, when they refused to rent an apartment to them. Cacheris awarded $8,440 in damages to the McGraws plus court costs and attorneys' fees, for an expected total of about $30,000, said Susz, who also represented the McGraws.
Experts in fair-housing law said the Lloyd and Shirley Park cases are among only a handful of housing discrimination suits ever filed in the Washington area. The suit filed by the McGraws said the owners and managers of the two apartment complexes violated federal fair-housing and civil-rights laws in refusing to rent to the plaintiffs.
"There's a belief that there's no housing discrimination in this area," said Susz. The Shirley Park case "flies in the face of that belief. It sends a message that the fair-housing laws must be taken seriously," she said.
The Chavezes, who came to Washington 5 1/2 years ago from El Salvador, said the decision shows "the laws work and the system works." Wilson said she is "glad justice was done and these people didn't get away with" discrimination. "I hope this makes people realize something can be done" about housing bias, she added.
The Shirley Park defendants reached a tentative settlement with the Arlington County government last week after the county filed a motion in federal court asking the judge's permission to join the civil suits against the apartment complex owners, manager and rental agent.
Under terms of the settlement, which must be approved by the county board, the Shirley Park agreed to set up tenant selection criteria, make monthly reports of the race and national origin of applicants for apartments, provide eight hours of training in federal fair-housing laws to its employes and agents, and to display fair-housing posters in its rental office.