$850,000 and $150,000 Awarded In Two D C Area Ad Discrimination Cases

A Black Georgetown University law professor and two fair housing advocacy groups won separate awards of $850,000 and $150,000 from real estate firms they charged had violated fair housing laws with newspaper advertisements which had used only white models.

Law professor, Girardeau A. Spann, the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington, and the Metropolitan Planning and Housing Association, had filed more than 40 complaints against D.C. area developers and advertising firms. Most had been settled for nominal amounts before the two settlements this Spring.

A federal jury ordered an Arlington real estate developer to pay $850,000 in damages to the African American professor and the two housing groups.

The case decided in U.S. District Court in Washington, involved ads that ran between 1981 and 1986 in The Washington Post and several other local publications for the sale of condominiums at Colonial Village, a garden-apartment community located in Arlington. In that period, newspaper advertisements for the 640 apartments in Colonial Village in Arlington VA, showed 251 white models, but no African American models.

It is the largest award ever in a case of racially discriminatory real estate advertising, according to Niki Kuckes, an attorney for the three plaintiffs. She said that Colonial Village spent about $150,000 a year on advertising. This is relevant to how much it would cost to remedy the effects of the advertising.

Regular Reader of Ads Had Standing

Just before the trial, Federal District Judge Harold H. Greene ruled that the law professor had standing to sue even if he never considered living in Arlington and never visited Colonial Village or sought to buy a home there. Judge Greene said, "There is no requirement under the law that [Spann] actually apply to a racially prejudiced realtor." He said under the Fair Housing Act, "the requirements of standing are not nearly so rigorous." Spann was a bona fine home seeker who regularly read the Washington Post real estate section and saw the Colonial Village ads.

Judge Greene also held that the intent of the creator of an ad was not at issue as he rejected defendant's motion for summary judgment. He said, "Although intent may be relevant in determining what message is conveyed...the issue centers on the objective message of the ad as construed by an ordinary reader."

The legal battle began when Spann started looking for a house or condo to buy and noticed real estate ads showing only white models. "It made me angry and it still makes me angry to this day," Spann said. He had discussed the ads with an attorney friend of his who told him, "Now wait a minute, this is racial steering. It has to be illegal. Why don't we sue them for it?"

Officials for the two fair housing groups testified that the Colonial Village ads harmed their mission or goals and caused them to divert resources to investigate and counteract the discriminatory effects of the ads.

As part of the same effort, in August 1986 the Spann group reached an agreement with The Post under which the newspaper agreed to require that 25 percent of the models shown in real estate ads be black, to roughly approximate the percentage of blacks in the Washington area.

The jury yesterday awarded $325,000 to each of the fair housing organizations, and $200,000 to Spann, who had testified that he would give the money to the two groups. Spann, a District resident, said he never did buy a house or condominium.

Mack Benton, vice president of Colonial Village Inc., a subsidiary of Mobil Land Development Corp., said, "It's our feeling that the amount of damages awarded by the jury is absurd." He said Colonial Village immediately began using black models in its ads after the suit was filed in 1986.

Gerstin Advertising Agency Settles for $150,000

Marvin J. Gerstin and his firm, Marvin Gerstin Associates, Inc., settled a separate case for $150,000. They were accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by including only white models in ads they prepared for several housing projects in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C.

They also agreed to include significant percentages of Blacks as human models in advertising they prepare in the future. They agreed to extensive record keeping and reporting to the plaintiffs, while denying any discrimination.

[Spann v. Colonial Village, (D.D.C. 5-5-92)] and [Spann v. Gerstin, (D.D.C. 3-30-92)]