U.S. Attorney Settles Discrimination Suit Against Worcester Rental Agency

WORCESTER, Mass., May 4, 1999 /PRNewswire/ -- The United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts has entered into a consent court order, which settles a civil housing discrimination suit against a Worcester rental agency. The Consent Order, which includes a $30,000 payment by the rental agency, has been submitted to the Court for its approval. the U.S. Attorney's Office has resolved a lawsuit under the Fair Housing Act against CHOICE PROPERTY CONSULTANTS, INC. ("CHOICE"), a Worcester rental agency that once described itself as "Worcester's #1 Leasing Company," and its president KAREN SOUCIE. CHOICE systematically violated the civil rights of potential tenants by recording on internal documents terms indicating that certain landlord clients did not wish to rent to African American or Hispanic tenants, or to tenants with children. CHOICE then honored those discriminatory preferences by refusing to show certain apartments to minority apartment seekers and apartment seekers with children. The investigation into the conduct of those landlords is ongoing.

The investigation leading to this legal action was conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD") after the Housing Discrimination Project, Inc. (HDP) filed a complaint with HUD. In addition to obtaining incriminating CHOICE documents, HDP also conducted a testing program in which matched pairs of testers (African American and white, for example) sought to use CHOICE's services. Those testers reported that CHOICE agents made discriminatory statements, such as "the owner doesn't want kids." HDP joined the United States as a plaintiff in the lawsuit and played an integral part in the litigation and in achieving a settlement.

U.S. Attorney Stern stated: "Landlords and agents should understand that discrimination will not be tolerated and this office will enforce the fair housing laws to the fullest. When a rental agent follows a landlord's instruction to discriminate on one of these bases, both the landlord and the agent violate the law." Stern added, "Choice Property made the wrong choice. It decided to break the law and to deny those seeking a new apartment their basic right to be free from illegal discrimination."

HUD Secretary Cuomo stated: "At President Clinton's direction, HUD has launched a nationwide crackdown on housing discrimination, in partnership with the Department of Justice. This discrimination is outrageous, illegal and intolerable, and has no place in America today."

Erin Kemple, Executive Director of the Housing Discrimination Project stated: "The actions of Choice Rental Properties, Inc. not only violated the law, but also condemned many families to unsafe neighborhoods with substandard housing simply because of the color of their skin, their national origin, or the fact that they had children. I hope that the settlement of this case sends a strong message to all Worcester housing providers that housing discrimination is illegal and is bad business."

Under the Fair Housing Act, it is unlawful to make housing unavailable because of a person's race, color, national origin, familial status, sex, disability, or religion. It is also unlawful to make or record a statement that indicates a preference not to sell or rent a dwelling to a person based on any of these personal characteristics.

CHOICE is in the business of providing referrals of rental properties to apartment seekers. The company seeks listings from apartment owners, advertises those listings to prospective tenants, shows available apartments to applicants, and represents landlords by taking applications from and performing credit checks on prospective tenants. In most cases, when a landlord stated to a CHOICE agent that the landlord did not want to rent to a minority tenant or to a tenant with children, CHOICE would use a code to record the landlord's preference on a list of available apartments called a "vacancy report." For example, a listing for an apartment on a vacancy report would often contain the term "Archie" to denote those owners who would not rent to African American or Hispanic applicants. "Archie" (or "Archianna, in the case of a female landlord) was a reference to the bigoted character Archie Bunker on the 1970's television show "All in the Family." Other listings contained terms such as "NKDS" or the phrase "no children" to signify a landlord who would not rent to families with children.

The U.S. Attorney, CHOICE, and the agency's president, Karen Soucie, have today asked the U.S. District Court in Worcester to approve a Consent Order in which the defendants admit to discriminatory conduct and agree to pay HDP $30,000, which the agency will use to continue its fair housing advocacy. The proposed order also contains provisions designed to prevent future acts of discrimination by the CHOICE or SOUCIE. These provisions include an injunction that requires them to:

(1) refrain from discriminating;

(2) provide fair housing training to all employees;

(3) include a non-discrimination policy in all documents describing CHOICE's services to landlords;

(4) include the Equal Housing Opportunity logo in all their advertisements and in their rental application forms;

(5) retain future records for inspection by the Department of Justice;

(6) report to the Department of Justice or HDP for a three-year period; and

(7) engage regularly in activities designed to encourage African American and Hispanic apartment seekers and those with children to use CHOICE's services.

The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with the assistance of the Housing Discrimination Project. The suit was handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney John A. Capin of Stern's Civil Division.