Virginia rental company agrees to pay $100,000 for steering Blacks and Whites to different cities

Early in May, Pierce Construction Company, a rental company based in Petersburg, Virginia that allegedly steered African-American and White prospective tenants to certain areas because of their race, agreed to pay $100,000 in damages, penalties, and investigative expenses.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court in Richmond by the Justice Department, alleged that Pierce Construction Company, which owns and manages rental properties in Petersburg and manages properties in Colonial Heights, engaged in a pattern of discrimination because of race.

The Justice Department accused Pierce Construction of providing African-Americans with information about available units only in the predominantly Black city of Petersburg, while telling White applicants about available rental units primarily in the nearly all-White neighboring town of Colonial Heights. It also claimed that the company discouraged Whites from considering housing in Petersburg. The apartment complexes named in the suit include Webster Court Apartments and Westwood Apartments in Petersburg, and English Village Apartments in Colonial Heights. All rental services for both Webster Apartments and English Village are provided from the office of the Pierce Construction Company in Petersburg.

The case against the Pierce Construction Company is the 33rd stemming from a nationwide Justice Department fair housing program to detect discrimination in the sale, rental, and insuring of housing. Under the program, trained pairs of "testers", African-Americans and Whites posing as prospective tenants, inquire about rental units. By comparing the experiences of the individual testers, investigators attempt to determine whether minority testers were treated less favorably than White testers.

"Housing discrimination is usually subtle but inflicts deep wounds on its victims and serves to segregate our society," said Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Deval L. Patrick. He added, "All Americans should have the ability to live in the neighborhood of their choice regardless of the color of their skin."

The Justice Department contracted with Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), a fair housing organization in Richmond, to assist in the investigation by conducting some of the tests. According to HOME Director Constance Chamberlain, HOME wa s "pleased" to work with the Justice Department in the case against Pierce Construction. Now that the case is settled, Chamberlain said that HOME will begin working on a plan to ensure fair housing in the Petersburg/Colonial Heights area.

Under the agreement, Pierce Construction will pay $25,000 in civil penalties to the U.S. Treasury; $25,000 to HOME for investigative expenses and to further fair housing in the Petersburg/Colonial Heights area, and create a $50,000 fund to compensate any identified victims of the alleged discriminatory practice.