Families win housing bias settlement

A fair housing group has announced a major settlement with a Santa Clare mobile home park operator accused of violating federal fair-housing law when he started eviction proceedings against two families because they had children.

The case was settled on the first day of trial late last month without the owner of Roundup Mobile Lodge ever admitting guilt. But housing advocates say the $195,000 settlement -- believed to be the largest ever reached in California over housing discrimination against families should help make landlords and renters more aware of a 4-year-old federal law that says renters, with few exceptions, can't be denied a home because they have children.

"This (settlement) is going to be setting a whole new tone to these types of cases. We want to warn the housing industry that they cannot continue to do this," said Ann Marquart, executive director of Project Sentinel, a private, non-profit fair housing agency in Santa Clare County.

The families of Eugenio Verges and Carlton Gonzalez contacted Marquart's agency in 1990 after David Blessing, a Santa Clara lawyer and president of the family corporation that owned the park, gave seven day notices requiring the families to conform with park rules prohibiting children.

They filed suit, and a judge immediately ruled that the families, with a total of three children, could stay in each of their mobile homes pendin g the outcome of a trial.

Blessing argued in the complicated, 2 1/2-year case that he should be granted one of the ex ceptions to federal housing law because his mobile home park nun abler federal regulations al lowing it to be designated for residents 55 years old and over.

To restrict access by age, the law states that the park, among ether things, must provide a number of facilities designed specifically for older people. The families had argued the park didn't qualify for the exception.

Blessing, citing a confidentiality agreement about the settlement, said Thursday he could not comment.

But his attorney, William Holsinger, said the mobile home park had been reserved for adults before the federal law was adopted. The city of San Jose eventually bought the park, which was close to San Jose International Airport, to meet noise abatement laws.

Holsinger said it would have been impractical "to build a bunch of new facilities (for seniors) when the park would be closing."

In court papers, Blessing argued that the Varges family hid the fact that they had a child from the park owner: The Gonzalez family was only allowed to move back in with one child until they could find another buyer after the sale of their mobile home fell through. They had a second child after moving back. Neither family could be reached for comment.

Holsinger said he could not confirm the size of the settlement because of the confidentiality clause, but said his client agreed to settle solely to avoid the possibility of huge attorney awards.

Chris Brancart, an attorney representing the two families, declined to say haw much of the $195,000 was for damages and how much for attorney fees. He said the confidentiality agree ment was limit to preventing the naming of the park owner. The Mercury News identified the park owner through federal court records.

"We're seeing a dramatic change in the value of housing discrimination cases involving families," he said. "People are beginning to see it's just as bad as discriminating on the basis of race."