$233,000 Awarded In Illinois Race/Family Case

The owners and agents of a Wheeling, Illinois apartment building must pay $135,000 in damages and $98,372 in attorney fees for discrimination against an African-American Chicago couple who tried to rent an apartment.

Steven and Brendia Whyte and Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs filed the lawsuit against agents Martin & Marbry and the owners of the property, Ben and Josephine Fragale of Des Plaines and George and Georgia Concialdi of Chicago. They alleged the owners and agents discriminated against them because of their race and because they have two children.

Black and white "testers" from the housing center, headquartered in Winnetka, Illinois, received vastly different treatment in staged efforts to rent the same unit, according to Acting Director Amy Schur.

In an out of court settlement, Martin & Marbry, the Northbrook real estate agency that listed the apartment, agreed to pay $60,000. Of this settlement, $10,000 will go to the housing center and the balance, less attorney's fees, will go to the Whytes. The settlement came a week before the trial against the agency was scheduled in Federal District Court.

The case against the owners went to trial July 12 before an eight-member jury, that included three AfricanAmericans. On July 15, the jury awarded $24,500 compensatory and $35,000 punitive damages to the Whytes; $5,500 compensatory and $10,000 punitive damages to the housing center; and $500 compensatory damages to the testers. On September 17, District Judge James Zagel signed an attorney fee order for $225 an hour.

Gave her "a hurtin' feeling"

In the Glencoe News, Mississippi native Brendia Whyte said she knows the pain of prejudice. She said the incident gave her "a hurtin' feeling. I am from the South and as a child, I dealt with racism," she said. "You come 900 miles away, you try to put that behind you, and it slaps you in the face again."

Both the Whytes work in Northbrook, she as a packer and punch press operator, and he as a plant supervisor. Steven Whyte also holds a second job in a nearby suburb.

Wanting to move North to be closer to work and for the benefit of their daughters, Brendia Whyte answered a newspaper advertisement in 1991 for a two bedroom apartment in a six unit building on 9th Street. According to the Whytes' attorney, Jeffrey Taren, owner George Concialdi failed to show up for an appointment and resisted rescheduling. Ben Fragale later told Brendia Whyte that "she had two children too many," Taren said.

With the help of Mitchell Brothers Realtors in Evanston, the Whytes saw the apartment and tried to rent i1: through the agent. "Their application was summarily rejected through Martin & Marbry," Taren said. "We believe the reason clearly was their race."

The Whytes were told the apartment had already been rented, but the same apartment was soon shown to a white tester sent by Ms. Schur.

The husband of a Mitchell Brothers agent also called about the apartment and was offered an immediate showing. 'Me white tester was shown the apartment, was given an application and encouraged to rent it," Schur said.

When a black person posing as a potential tenant made an appointment to see the unit, the building owner failed to show up, she said.

In the case of the Whytes, although the apartment owners claimed to be opposed to children in the building, Taren said, they did rent to white families with children. In any event, discrimination against families with children is also illegal, he noted. "This was a case of using one illegal reason as an excuse to hide another illegal reason," said Taren.

Jury found family, race and/or both discrimination

The jury found the Whytes had been discriminated against on the basis of race, familial status and/or both. Martin & Marbry denied racial discrimination, and said the firm had informed the owners that they would no longer handle the listing if the owners wanted to exclude families with children, according to attorney Jon Duncan.

The case against the owners was reviewed by the Human Relations Commission in Evanston, where the Whytes lived, and by HUD before it went to federal. court. The case has led Wheeling Village President Sheila Schultz to say a housing panel is needed as part of a new human rights ordinance.

Taren and Schur report that the Whytes' experience is not unusual. Taren called discrimination on the basis of both race and familial status "absolutely prevalent" in Chicago's suburbs.

"There's more evidence of housing discrimination than people realize," Schur said Brendia Whyte hopes the trial will help change that sad reality and give more people a chance at the housing they desire. 

[Whyte v. Fragale, No. 1:92-CV-06386 (N.D. Ill. 7-13-93 (verdict); 7-11-93 (consent decree)]
Counsel: Jeffrey Taren of Kinoy, Taren, Geraghty & Potter, Chicago (plaintiffs); Anthony Pinelli, Chicago (defendants)