Miami Landlord Pays $1.2 Million in Race Settlement

Jose Milton, one of Miami's wealthiest businesspersons, will pay settlements totaling $1.2 million because two of his former employees admitted to discriminating against Blacks seeking housing at one of his apartment complexes. Miami's Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence (HOPE) has settled this latest in a series of major Dade County housing discrimination cases in August.

The settlement provides that Beverly Hills Club Apartments pay $200,000 in federal fines; $100,000 for each of the four leading plaintiffs; $150,000 for the Florida Justice Institute for legal fees and costs; and $375,000 for a fund to compensate past victims of housing discrimination at the complex. It also provides for injunctive relief and a 7 year, monitoring of the property for compliance with fair housing laws.

This is the second time that Beverly Hills Club Apartments has been accused of housing discrimination; in 1988 it settled with the Justice Department, and agreed to make affirmative fair housing initiatives and provide fair housing training for its staff. The Beverly Hills Club is part of a large housing enterprise with over 3,000 units in Dade and Broward Counties. The suit, filed on behalf of 4 complainants, was handled by Randy Berg and Peter Siegel of the Florida Justice Institute. The lawsuit was joined by the U.S. Attorney's Office, represented by Veronica Harrell-James. The respondent was charged with discriminating against African-Americans interested in renting apartments at the 700 unit complex. This enterprise is owned by Jose Milton of the J. Milton Associates.

According to Mr. Berg, a leading Florida housing discrmination lawyer, this was as blatant a case of housing dicrimination as he has witnessed. Danny How, HOPE's Manger of Testing and Investigations, said that the differences in treatment which the testers reported to him were profound and disturbing.

The case centers on the Beverly Hills Apartments going back to since June 1, 1992. Peter Siegel, Florida Justice Institute attorney who represented the plaintiffs, said Blacks who were told no apartments were available or who paid higher rents than non-Blacks may make a claim for the funds.

The settlement requires Beverly Hills Apartments to advertise in The Miami Times six times a year. Previously, it advertised only in The Apartment Guide, a weekly pamphlet.

Former rental agents Stacy Grosso and Edna Carrero testified that Milton's son, Cecil, told them they should rent no more units to Blacks because whites would not want to rent there and Beverly Hills property value would decrease. They had testified a year earlier that there had been no talk of discrimination.

Cecil Milton also claimed no wrongdoing. The father conceded his employees could have been discriminatory. "Two and a half years ago, they said one thing under oath, now they say another thing," he said. "If I changed what I said under oath, I'd be in jail," as reported in the Miami Herald.

Plaintiff, Earnest Chinye, said that he called repeatedly during one week to make sure an apartment was available at the complex. He called on a Friday and then on Saturday at 9 a.m. before going to the Beverly Hills. Each time he was told there were units available for rent.

When he got there a rental agent told him the last apartment had been rented the day before and he would have to wait two months for a vacancy. Chinye said he suspected something was phony and called from work on Monday. An agent again said there were no apartments available. He got one of his white co-workers to call and make the same inquiry and the rental agent said then that a unit was available.

Chinye contacted officials at HOPE, who looked for other complaints. They found Patrick Byrd, another plaintiff. HOPE officials, one Black and one white, later posed as interested renters at the apartments.

The Black tester was treated the same way Chinye and Byrd were. The white tester, arriving hours later, was told a unit would be available in a week.

Dionne and Clark Major, the other two plaintiffs, later came forward. "Nothing like that had ever really happened to me before," Dionne Major told The Miami Herald. "I was shocked, I didn't believe that people were still doing that kind of thing."

Chinye said he is still in shock. "The settlement is okay but it is not just the money. I became so suspicious. Now, when I deal with someone of another race, and they say no' to something, it makes me raise the question, Why did they say no?'" he said.

The U.S. Department of Justice and HOPE subsequently filed separate lawsuits against Milton alleging Beverly Hills Apartments charged Blacks higher rent, lied to them about vacancies and refused to rent to them. That 1988 settlement agreement expired in 1992 and according to HOPE officials, so did compliance with the decree.

Siegel said his firm, which deals with public-interest law, has handled more than a dozen housing discrimination cases in the past two years but this one was the biggest. "This was one of the biggest cases in the country and definitely the biggest defendant we've had, considering the number of rentals Jose Milton owns," he said. Hispanic Business Magazine put Milton's worth at $50 million.

"I don't know if the housing discrimination is increasing or diminishing, but it is a significant problem," Siegel said. A 1989 study by the Justice Department ranked Miami, Dayton, and Cincinnati, Ohio as having the highest disparate treatment of Black renters in the country, which was 60 percent of all Blacks seeking apartments.