Class-action bias case ends with $575,000 settlement

An Alameda County Superior Court has approved a $575,000 settlement -- the largest class action housing discrimination case in state court history. The case, brought by an African-American family, alleged that they had been denied the opportunity to rent an apartment at the South Shore Garden Apartments in the city of Alameda in 1996, because of their race and because the apartment complex did not rent to families with children. The settlement provides for payment of $90,000 to the individual family, as well as a fund of $200,000 to pay claims of all other tenants who were discriminated against on the basis of race or familial status. In addition, $25,000 Fair Housing of Oakland, the Impact Fund of Berkeley, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Housing Rights, Inc., and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights- all groups working against housing discrimination.

Judge Kawaichi approved the $575,000 settlement on August 13, 1999. As part of the settlement, the defendants, Conference Claimants Endowment Board (which has since sold the Alameda apartment complex), has agreed to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees and court costs, the costs of the administration of the settlement process, and fair housing training and monitoring of other rental properties owned by the defendants.

The case arose in 1996 when Brenda and Chris Baldwin inquired about renting an available apartment at the South Shore Garden Apartments in Alameda. The resident manager told them that the complex did not rent to families with children on the second floor. The complaint of discrimination was verified by Sentinel Fair Housing of Oakland, a civil rights organization which counsels landlords and tenants about fair housing laws, and is funded by HUD to investigate claims of housing discrimination.

Once the discrimination had been verified by Sentinel, the Baldwin family retained a private lawyer, Zona Sage of Oakland, and filed a class action lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court. Subsequent investigation by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing confirmed discrimination against families with children by the complex, and DFEH filed a second lawsuit against the Conference Claimants Endowment Board. DFEH dismissed its case when it appeared that the private lawsuit would be successful. It is the family’s private class action lawsuit which has now settled.

In the course of the litigation evidence from the defendants revealed that systematic discrimination against African-American tenants had also taken place, according to Zona Sage, the plaintiffs’ attorney. The court ordered that claims of race discrimination be included in their lawsuit.

"Even in this area with so much awareness of discrimination laws, many landlords still erroneously think it is permissible to discriminate against families with children," said Zona Sage. "Hopefully cases like this will educate people that it is against the law, and increase rental opportunities for minorities and families with children."

The $200,000 fund is for other tenants who were discriminated against at South Shore Garden Apartments because of race or family status. Claims must be filed no later than October 13, 1999 with the claims administrator, Johnnie Scott, Jr., P.O. Box 1683, Benicia, CA 94510-4683, tel. (707)747-0839.

"Sentinel Fair Housing is committed to enforcing state and federal fair housing laws. If housing providers insist on violating these laws we will respond and justice will prevail," said Mona Breed, executive director of Sentinel Fair Housing.