Washington Area Advertising Case Settled for $841,000

An African-American Georgetown University law Professor and two fair housing advocacy groups have settled their nine-year "white models" advertising case for $841,000. They had charged that newspaper ads which used only white models violated fair housing laws.

Law professor, Girardeau A. Spann, the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington, and the Metropolitan Planning and Housing Association brought the charges. A federal jury in 1992 had ordered the Arlington real estate developer to pay $850,000 in damages to the African-American professor and the two housing groups.

The June 1995, settlement with Mobil Land Development Corp. was for slightly less money to avoid an appeal. Mobil operates the Colonial Village property but is best known as the current developer of Reston.

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

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 earlier. 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?" (See December, 1992, Advocate p.4)

Fair housing officials had 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. Their attorneys said non-white residents of the Washington area were victims of bias because of Mobil Land advertising that displayed only white models.

The lawsuit against Mobil Land was one of about 40 administrative complaints against advertisers and developers in the mid-1980s but was the only one that went to trial, said David Berenbaum, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington. Spann and the fair housing groups alleged that Mobil Land violated the federal fair housing law because only white models were pictured in advertising until May 1986. The law requires that the models used in ads reflect composition of a community.

The Colonial Village development still exists but it is no longer a corporate entity called Colonial Village or connected with Mobil Land.

In addition to the monetary damages, Mobil Land agreed to ensure that all its ads comply with the law by showing "models of all races in the metropolitan area if models are used," according to the Fair Housing Council. At the time, Spann and the two fair housing organizations that filed the suit said the advertising was biased because it showed only white models and thus discouraged him from buying housing from the companies that advertised.

"I'm happy the case is finally settled," Spann said recently. "All my life I've been troubled by racially directed advertising," as reported in the June 10, Washington Post.

Berenbaum said the outcome of the long-running Mobil Land case could affect advertising practices across the country because the firm operates nationally, and the outcome might help educate companies everywhere about fair housing advertising law. When the cases were filed, they were among the first of their kind in the nation. He said the council will use its share of the award "to educate the public on the benefits of housing integration."

Mobil Land, said it will feature Black models in 33 percent of the company's newspaper, television and other advertising, reflecting the percentage of Blacks living in the Washington metropolitan area. Companies that have shown whites in their advertising were required to continue using human models, including Blacks, with the same frequency as in the year before April 1986, when the complaints were filed.