Racial discrimination and family status discrimination in Riverside, California

Current and former tenants of Smoke Tree Apartments in Riverside, California won a $100,000 settlement in February from apartment owners John and Mary Harding. The consent decree signed by the Hardings and the plaintiffs ended the litigation of a fair housing lawsuit filed by the tenants and a former manager. The suit alleged that the Hardings had been involved in illegal discrimination at the complex based on race and family status.

The consent decree, which outlined one of the largest monetary settlements ever in a case handled by the Fair Housing Council of Riverside County, was approved by Federal Judge Robert Timlin in February. Additionally, it called for the Hardings to pay attorney's fees and attend fair housing training conducted by the Fair Housing Council.

Tenants originally voiced their complaints to the Fair Housing Council over the alleged segregation of families with children at Smoke Tree Apartments. Tenants claimed that the owners and managers had reserved one side of the complex for families with children and the other side of the complex for single or married adults who did not have children. The plaintiffs also claimed that young children were forbidden to cross over into the "adult" side of the Smoke Tree complex.

Families with children were also allegedly denied use of some of the Smoke Tree's services and facilities. According to the suit, children were harassed by managers and unreasonable rules and regulations against children and their families were enforced at Smoke Tree.

The claims of racial discrimination at Smoke Tree Apartments came from a former manager of the complex. She said in her complaint that she was ordered by the owners to apply discriminatory rental policies against minorities and families with children. The former manager said that the owners of Smoke Tree Apartments were aware that the policies were discriminatory.

Rose Mayes, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Riverside County, said it was her agency's job to help uphold the law and help clients retain their fair housing rights. She told Riverside's Precinct Reporter, "If housing providers insist on violating state and federal fair housing laws, we must respond and justice must prevail."

Commenting on her agency's purpose, Mayes later added, "Our mission is to affirmatively address and promote fair housing rights and further other housing opportunities for all persons without regard to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, disability, (and under California law) ancestry, marital status, or other arbitrary factors."

The plaintiffs in the case were represented by Christopher Brancart, a California civil rights attorney. Brancart handles many fair housing cases in California and works with many different private fair housing agencies on the West Coast.