Fair Housing Council Files Suit Alleging Race Bias at Buena Park Apartments

Orange County Register Newspaper Article

Further Information: Fair Housing Council of Orange County
Vox: (714) 569-0825 Fax: (714) 835-0281
Email: Fairhsg@ix.netcom.com

For Release 10/07/98

The Fair Housing Council of Orange County has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the owners of the Flowertree Apartments located in Buena Park, California are discriminating on the basis of race or color. The suit, which was filed last Friday, alleges violations of the federal Fair Housing Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, as well as federal and state civil rights laws. The Council is joined by three individuals as plaintiffs in the action. They are Ms. Takisha Spears, Ms. Deana Silva and Charles Bailey, Ms. Silva's son, who is a minor.

The Flowertree apartment complex is comprised of 186 units located at 6664 Knott Avenue in Buena Park. Public records indicate the complex is owned by the Wysard Family Trust, of which Mr. Herbert P. Wysard, Jr. and Mrs. Rose M. Wysard are trustees. The suit names the Wysards individually as defendants in their capacity as trustees. The Wysards have been involved in the ownership and operation of Flowertree since 1978.

Ms. Spears, who is African-American, and Ms. Silva, who is multiracial, encountered obstacles when they tried to rent an apartment at the complex. The suit alleges that the processing of their rental applications had been intentionally delayed and an attempt made to increase the security deposit amount from what was initially quoted in order to discourage them from renting an apartment. Despite the delay and the attempted change of security deposit terms, Ms. Spears and Ms. Silva moved to the complex in June of last year, but have since left Flowertree as a result of feeling unwelcome.

The apparent intentional attempt to discourage them from renting at Flowertree came to light about seven weeks after Ms. Spears and Ms. Silva moved into the complex. They were approached by the manager at the time, Ms. Michelle Brooks, who confessed to them that Mrs. Wysard had delayed the final approval of their applications, despite their acceptable credit reports having been promptly received. Furthermore she told them she had been instructed by Mrs. Wysard to tell the applicants that the deposit amount would be $350 rather than $250 as a means of discouraging them from pursuing the unit.

The Fair Housing Council began investigating the defendants after being contacted last August 22 by the Orange County office of the NAACP, which in turn had been contacted by Ms. Spears and Ms. Silva following Ms. Brooks revelation of the discriminatory practices at Flowertree. Based on the information provided by the NAACP, The Council conducted a test of the property. The results of the test were consistent with the information provided by Ms. Brooks. The Council also contacted Ms. Brooks, who had quit in disgust after just two months as manager and just after having come forward regarding the alleged discrimination. Ms. Brooks provided additional allegations of discriminatory conduct and statements on the part of Mr. and Mrs. Wysard.

In a signed declaration obtained by the Council, Ms. Brooks stated that the Wysards told her she had been hired because she was from the South, and so would understand their desire to not rent to African-Americans. She alleges that Mr. Wysard related how he had once owned property in Texas, but was forced to sell it because "it went black on him." She stated that she was also told that the management company they had utilized previously, Jupiter Western National, had been terminated because they had let too many African-Americans rent at Flowertree. She went on to state that Mr. Wysard told her to not give African-American prospective tenants a visitor card, which is used to track people inquiring about apartments. Likewise, she was instructed not to give an application, unless specifically asked for one. On the other hand, she was told white prospective tenants were to be immediately offered both. She said the Wysards instructed her to stall processing applications from African-Americans in order to discourage them from renting at Flowertree, or to find a reason to deny an application when that tactic failed. She stated she was also warned by Mr. Wysard to be careful because he did not want to get caught not renting to blacks. She was told to be pleasant to African-Americans but to not encourage them, and to be aware that "Fair Housing would send spies who act as applicants."

Commenting on the alleged conduct of the Wysards, Elizabeth Martin, an attorney and the agency's Director of Litigation, stated that "the discrimination that has occurred at Flowertree is egregious and long-standing. We intend to make sure the Wysards will not have the opportunity to engage in these practices in the future."

Further investigation by the Council uncovered at least seven other former Flowertree employees who confirmed Ms. Brooks allegations. They reported to the Council that among other discriminatory practices, the Wysards instructed that they not rent to African-Americans, or if they did, to segregate them in certain areas of the complex. They made negative remarks about black prospective applicants and ordered the rejection of black applicants without any evaluation of their application. At least one former manager reported Mr. Wysard told her to aggressively follow-up with white applicants, but to only make one non-aggressive follow-up call to any black applicants.

With regard to the behavior alleged by these former employees, Ms. Martin commented that "what's particularly galling about this case, is that the Wysards knew what they were doing was illegal, and they did everything they could to cover their tracks. The Wysards told their managers to avoid overt discrimination that might be caught, and instead to simply make it harder and less desirable for blacks to rent than whites."

Based on their findings, the Fair Housing Council joined with Ms. Spears and Ms. Silva as plaintiffs in filing the suit. Fair housing law makes it possible not only for those directly harmed by discrimination, such as Ms. Spears, Ms. Silva and her son to bring suit, but also for community organizations, such as the Council, to sue on behalf of the community in order to root out housing discrimination. Along with the Council's own legal staff, the plaintiffs are being represented by Brancart & Brancart, a California law firm specializing in representing plaintiffs in fair housing litigation.

The complaint alleges the Wysards have violated the Fair Housing Act, which was passed by Congress 30 years ago to forbid discrimination in the sale or rental of housing on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin. The Act was later amended to include sex, disability or having children in the household. The complaint also claims they have violated California's Fair Employment and Housing Act and the state's Unruh Civil Rights Act which provide similar protections against housing discrimination. Additionally, it alleges the violation of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1866, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of color or race in the rental of housing.

In addition to the violation of these laws, the suit alleges that the Wysards acted negligently by failing to properly train and supervise their agents with respect to following fair housing laws. It asks the court to declare that they have violated federal and state fair housing laws, seeks to enjoin the defendants from continuing the discriminatory practices and to require them to provide equal housing opportunities to all tenants and prospective tenants regardless of race or color. Furthermore, the suit seeks compensatory and punitive monetary awards based on the proof that the plaintiffs will provide at trial.

Along with filing the complaint in the Central District Court of California in Santa Ana, the Council intends to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development's office of Fair Housing & Equal Opportunity, which is charged by Congress with enforcing the Fair Housing Act nationally. Such "dual" filing is not unusual in housing dsicrimination cases, because it helps bring to bear the maximum enforcement effort to eliminate discriminatory housing practices.

The Fair Housing Council of Orange County is a private non-profit organization formed in the wake of the civil rights movement that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Council incorporated in 1968, the same year that Congress extended civil rights protections to cover housing. Under the direction of a 13-member volunteer board of directors and with a paid staff of twelve, it contracts with all of Orange County's local governments, including the city of Buena Park, to provide services that help to eliminate discriminatory housing practices. It handles over 1,000 issues concerning housing discrimination in the county each year.