Tenants, landlord settle race suit

Epithets and slurs charged; owner denies accusations

By Scott Maier P-I Reporter

Routine epithets such as "nigger," "nip" and "wetback." Minorities told no rooms for rent, despite several vacancies. Black children refused use of the apartment's swimming pool.

Ugly acts of racism once were common in the Deep South. But these were day-to-day events at the Mark Manor Apartments, tenants of the Burien-area complex complained.

Their accusations resulted in a $300,000 settlement this week of a civil rights lawsuit filed against the apartment owner, William Allingham.

No wrong-doing was admitted. An attorney representing Allingham said the case was settled at the insurer's urging to prevent a lengthy, expensive trial.

Settlements commonly end Up in a pact of silence, but the tenants and their attorneys insisted on their right to tell the public the settlement's terms and the grounds of their lawsuit.

"We don't want it swept under the rug," said Jeffrey Needle, a Seattle lawyer who filed the case with Susan Mindenbergs. "Only if they pay, and they pay handsomely, will we deter this kind of behavior."

Proceeds from the settlement will be split evenly among the 14 plaintiffs who say they encountered discrimination at Mark Manor, a four-story apartment building located at 12201 Ambaum Blvd. S.W. Attorneys get a third.

The case was scheduled to go to trial in February in King County Superior Court. A judge earlier issued a restraining order preventing racial slurs, evictions and other harassment at Mark Manor.

"Mr. Allingham has denied and continues to deny that there was any racial discrimination," said Donald Allen, his attorney. In fact, minorities represent a larger proportion of tenants than the population of King County, he said.

Allen provided sworn statements by black tenants who testified they were well treated at Mark Manor.

Racial discrimination often is subtle and hard to prove. But from the tenants' perspective, their case was rock solid.

"(It was) harassment and racial discrimination in the rawest form. It was blatant, drastic. It was direct and it was open," said Lionel Green, a former tenant who contends his inter-racial family was subject to taunts and ridicule.

On one occasion last April, he said, the apartment manager instructed a teen-ager to tell the Greens' preschool children that their mother is a "nigger lover" and that she has "jungle fever."

On another occasion, his Buick Riviera was towed from the apartment's parking lot because he exceeded the two-car maximum allowed. However, white tenants with as many as five cars never faced such treatment, he said. With no place to put the car, Green said he abandoned the Buick at the towing station.

There also was the time that a security guard was posted for a half-hour right outside their apartment window, he said. Finally, the Greens were given an eviction notice.

"There were constant threats: 'If you don't like it, get out.'" he recalled.

Green wondered, "Is it just me?"  But in conversations with other minority tenants, Green said he found a clear pattern of discrimination. A transplant from Texas, Green said he hadn't expected to encounter racism so blatant here.

"I was shocked. That stuff doesn't stand in Seattle, at least not openly," he said.

Put in sworn statements, former apartment manager LaDonna Holmes denies ever using racially derisive language. She said the Greens were the first black family she had tried to evict. The eviction was for good cause, and only after several written warnings, she said.

Other witnesses tell a different story.

In a deposition, Cynthia LaPiana said Holmes often referred to her as a "wetback" because of her Spanish heritage. She also heard Holmes use terms such as nigger, nips and Japs.

Carmela Guerrero, who worked for Holmes, said she heard Holmes complain about the "jungle music" from the apartment next door. Guerrero said she also witnessed Holmes turning away a prospective black tenant "knowing full well five units were available."

Three of four prospective tenants seeking apartments were black, but none was accepted while she worked for Holmes, Guerrero said. After objecting to to the racism, Guerrero said she was told, "she wasn't right for the job." Guerrero was let go two days later, she said.

Another tenant testified that Holmes told her that being white was "one point in her favor" when applying to become a tenant.

Holmes contends that she rejected the perspective tenants not on the basis of race, but because they sought participation in a federal subsidy program that involved lots of paperwork. She again denied using racial slurs. Guerrero was fired for her lack of "loyalty" to Mark Manor management, Holmes said.

An interracial couple now manages the complex.

The lawsuit contends that it wasn't simply a case of an errant apartment manager. It was alleged that Allingham, the apartment owner, set the tone of racial intolerance.

LaPiana insists Allingham told her that he would prefer not to rent to blacks. Two tenants describe similar incidents.

Cindy Summers, who helped manage the complex, told lawyers that Allingham not only tried to discourage prospective black tenants from applying, but told her "to find something wrong with their application" if they did.

Janet Rutherford, who managed the apartment complex for six months, said she remembers Allingham speaking fondly of the days when the Mark Manor was a "white, middle-class place." She says Allingham repeatedly told her to "get the riff-raff out of here."

The allegations are not true, Allingham's lawyer said.