$218,000 Race/Family Settlement is Wisconsin's Largest

The United States Department of Justice has settled the largest fair housing case in Wisconsin, totaling damages of $218,000. The order was approved in November by U.S. District Judge Terrence Evans. The lawsuit was based on an investigation conducted by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council (MMFHC) and the Northeast Wisconsin Fair Housing Council (NEW-FHC) of Security Management Company, which provides management services for approximately 3500 rental units in Wisconsin.

Black and Hmong testers were treated differently than white testers in the series of tests conducted during 1991 and 1992. The testing showed that homeseekers with children encountered a pattern of discouragement, steering and limited units made available to them. In 8 of the 10 complexes tested, less favorable treatment was given to testers based upon race, national origin and/or presence of children in the household.

In general, Hmong and African-American testers were told about fewer apartments to rent and shown fewer apartments. In some cases, Hmong and African-American testers were told that there were no units available at all, while white testers were being shown one or two units available to rent. Other examples of other differences in treatment for people in protected classes in this study included:

  • The stipulation that specific units would only be discussed and/or shown if the home seeker's family was present;
  • Differences in the provision of rental applicants or other written information; and
  • "Steering" of families with children to first floors of buildings, or away from or towards particular buildings (steering is an illegal limitation on the housing choices of home seekers, who have the right to chose among available homes for themselves).

Shortly before the case was to go to trial, the litigants agreed to settle the case. Terms of the settlement are detailed in the consent decree announced by the Justice Department. They included an agreement to follow fair housing law and:

  • Defendant's payment of $218,000 in damages and civil forfeiture as follows:
    • $45,000 of the amount was a civil penalty payable to the Justice Department,
    • Individual testers received from $5,000 to $15,000 in relief,
    • NEW-FHC received $30,000, MMFHC received $25,000
    • The Fox Valley Hmong/Lao Association, Inc. in Appleton and the Oshkosh Lao/Hmong American Association, Inc. each received $10,000 to be used for housing related services [an unusual inclusion, since they were not involved in the case as litigants], and
    • Between $50,000 and $60,000 was awarded for legal fees and court costs.
  • Provision for the following affirmative relief:
    • An agreement that Security Management will arrange with a third party to have its own properties "tested" to help ensure compliance with fair housing law.
Funding for this investigation was provided by the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to identify systemic forms of illegal discrimination in Wisconsin rental markets. This is the first case brought by the Justice Department on behalf of individuals from Southeast Asia.

According to William R. Tisdale, Executive Director of the MMFHC, "The evidence in this case demonstrates that some housing providers continue to use race, national origin and/or children in the household as major criteria in their rental practices. It is important to note that it was only through testing that these practices were uncovered. Until we are able to eliminate such illegal practices, the dream of fair housing will not be realized by all Americans."

Tests were conducted in person by trained volunteer testers who had similar personal and home seeking characteristics. They were instructed to inquire about similar units and provide factual accounts of their visits. The testers did not know who their matched partner was, what happened to their partner, or what the particular test was designed to ascertain.