Grand Rapids complexes pay $180,000 in race/family case

An owner and former resident manager of a Grand Rapids, Michigan, apartment complex willpay $180,000 in damages for allegedly refusing to rent to African Americans and familieswith children, under an agreement reached with the Justice Department.

Manageragreed to move out of the complex and never work there again

The April agreement, which resolves the first housing discrimination suit everbrought by the Justice Department in Grand Rapids, also requires the former manager tomove out of the complex and never work there in any capacity again.

Presented April 21 for approval by the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, theagreement settles a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department in February 1997, against MarkJansma, the owner, and Robert Etheridge, the former resident manager, of Town and CountryApartments in Grand Rapids. Four families at the complex later joined the lawsuit.

In the suit, the Justice Department alleged the owner and manager of the 50-unitcomplex violated the federal Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent apartments toAfrican-Americans and families with children. Under the agreement, the defendants will:

  • pay $135,000 in damages to the four families who were victims of discrimination, $5,000to the Fair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids, and $5,000 in civil penalties to theU.S. Treasury;
  • set up a fund of $35,000 to compensate additional victims of discrimination they lateridentify;
  • begin a fair housing training program at Town and Country;
  • establish uniform rental procedures to prevent further discrimination at Town andCountry; and,
  • no longer allow the manager to work at the complex in any capacity.

Testing evidence showed that African-Americans were lied to and children were keptout

The Justice Department discovered the discrimination after trained pairs of black andwhite "testers" posing as prospective tenants looked into rental units at thecomplex. The investigation revealed that the manager told black testers that no apartmentswere available, but told white testers that apartments were available and offered to showapartments to those testers.

The testing, which was partially funded by HUD's Fair Housing Initiatives Program, alsorevealed that the manager told prospective tenants that they did not permit families withyoung children at Town and Country.

The testing was conducted by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and by theFair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids, a non-profit organization that works toensure equal housing opportunity in the Grand Rapids area.

"To deny a person an apartment based on the color of his or her skin or because heor she has a family is to deny that person a rightful share of the American dream,"said Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Bill Lann Lee.

"This lawsuit should send a firm message to housing providers in Western Michiganthat we will not tolerate discrimination and that we will prosecute and punish thosepersons who refuse to provide fair and equal treatment," said Michael Hayes Dettmer,the U.S. Attorney in Grand Rapids, whose office worked with the Justice Department's CivilRights Division in prosecuting the case.