Native American Rental Case Settled for $65,000 By Justice Dept. and Montana Concerned Citizens

A case alleging rental discrimination against American Indians has been settled by the Justice Department and the Concerned Citizens Coalition (CCC) for $65,000. U.S. District Court Judge Jack D. Shanstrom signed a Consent Order in June. It had been agreed to by the parties including Gilda Little Bird, and John Bull Shows versus Richard E. Lee and Donald R. Lee, Sr. The case, filed October 7, 1992 under the Fair Housing Act, alleged that the Lees had been engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against American Indians in the rental of the Lee Apartments in Billings, Montana.

Ms. Toni Austad, Director of CCC, a private fair housing organization that has worked on housing issues since 1982, said, "This settlement represents a major step forward in the advancement of fair housing choice in Billings and helps to eradicate the housing discrimination which is widespread in Montana, particularly against Native Americans. This settlement confirms that violation of discrimination laws is not only wrong, but expensive."

Governor's Council Found Discrimination

In May 1991 Governor Stan Stevens established a nine-member Montana Advisory Council on Housing Discrimination to investigate housing discrimination throughout the state. The January 1992 report filed by the advisory task force found "that illegal housing discrimination is a serious problem throughout Montana that adversely affects all of its residents and the health and vitality of its communities."

The Advisory Council emphasized the need for increased enforcement, education, and public support of those who work to eliminate housing discrimination. It also supported the use of testing by fair housing groups as an essential legal tool to investigate compliance with the housing laws. CCC has been actively involved in efforts to end discrimination in Montana, and performs a variety of tasks in furthering its general purpose of promoting fair housing, including providing counseling and technical assistance to other groups and agencies, conducting testing, and assisting the housing and lending industry in designing programs.

CCC was instrumental in initiating the Lee case. In March, 1991, CCC received a complaint and conducted an investigation and testing of the Lee Apartments. As a result, CCC filed complaints with the Montana Human Rights Commission and the US Department of Housing & Urban Development and brought the matter to the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice.

First Justice Case Over Native American Rental Discrimination

The Department of Justice further investigated the complaint and filed the action in federal court in Billings. This was the first case in the nation the Department of Justice has filed involving rental pattern and practice of discrimination against Native Americans.

Ms. Austad praised the work of the Department of Justice and Montana attorneys who represented the Plaintiffs in this action. Ms. Austad said that "CCC is pleased this case has settled, and that it can turn its resources to other facets of advancing equal housing opportunities, such as training and counseling." CCC engages in extensive educational efforts and outreach programs throughout the state.

Joan Jonkel, the attorney who represented CCC in this action, pointed out that as part of the settlement, the defendants will sign a Voluntary Affirmative Marketing Plan (VAMA) developed by the Montana Board of Realtors and the Billings Board of Realtors. She urged that housing providers contact CCC or these organizations for further information on the VAMA program or on discrimination laws. The Montana Human Rights Commission can also provide specific information on compliance. (Contact CCC at Box 613, Great Falls, MT 59403, 406/727-9136, or Billings office 406/256-9988)

Montana and Billings Faced Down Wave of Hatred and Violence

Editors note: Readers who want to understand the ethnic climate in Montana should read the article entitled Their Finest Minute in the New York Times Magazine of July 3. The nine page, illustrated article tells how the people of Billings faced down a wave of hatred and violence. It says, "The harder challenges remain: Applying the lessons to ordinary life." The article tells how the town was confronted with a series of hate crimes against minority citizens and how the citizens fought back in a brave and dramatic way against the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups.