Steered Wrong Does a Capitol Hill Real Estate Company Tell Black People Where to Go?

In her 11 years in the Navy, Petty Officer Pamela Hendrickson, 29, has packed up and shipped out to many strange ports where the natives have not always been welcoming. But it was in the United States, in the nation's capital, where Hendrickson says she received the most hostile reception.

On Aug. 15, Hendrickson filed a suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia alleging that housing discrimination is alive and well. Hendrickson, who is black, claims that Yarmouth Management Co. Inc. and its agent, Frances McDowell, lied to her about the availability of apartments in majority white parts of Capitol Hill, and steered her instead toward apartments that lie in predominately black parts of the Hill.

It's a procedure, says her attorney John Relman, that is disturbingly common in D.C. He says that random tests conducted by fair housing advocates of majority white neighborhoods find that between 50 and 60 percent of blacks who look to rent in those parts of town are discriminated against or steered toward other parts of town.

“I've been in the Far East. I've been in the Middle East—in the Gulf War. I've been better respected overseas than how [McDowell] treated me,” says Hendrickson. “And the thing that makes me really angry is that I'm defending her rights as a U.S. citizen only to be treated like I don't count. Like I don't matter. Please.”

The Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington (FHC) has joined Hendrickson as a plaintiff. When she complained to FHC about her treatment, the council conducted undercover tests by black and white volunteers to see if Hendrickson's experience was unique. FHC says that Yarmouth and McDowell flunked those tests.

On Aug. 30, Yarmouth's attorney, Richard Luchs of Greenstein DeLorme & Luchs, filed a reply that denies Hendrickson and FHC's blanket charges of discrimination but says that at this time, the company is “without sufficient knowledge or information to form a belief as to the truth” of the specific allegations. Reached at home, McDowell says she has yet to hire an attorney, and politely refused to answer any questions about the case.

In fall 1993, Hendrickson had just returned to America from Diego Garcia, a small island in the Indian Ocean where she served as news director of the Navy's television station. She had accepted an assignment to become the news videographer for the Chief of Naval Operations. When she first arrived in D.C., Hendrickson stayed with friends near 6th and A Streets SE. She liked Capitol Hill. It was close to work. So she began to scout for an apartment.

In her search she noticed that “by far there were more signs in front of nice buildings that said "Yarmouth.' ” So on Nov. 29, 1993, she called Yarmouth and spoke to McDowell. Hendrickson said she was interested in apartments in the $500 to $600 range. McDowell faxed her a daily list of Yarmouth's available apartments on Capitol Hill. “I was really happy, there seemed to be a lot of perfect apartments for me,” says Hendrickson. She called McDowell back and scheduled an appointment to view the apartments.

The next day, Hendrickson arrived at Yarmouth's headquarters at 309 7th St. SE. She was dressed in jeans and blazer. Her hair was braided in a traditional African-American style.

“And right away, [McDowell] seemed surprised,” says Hendrickson. “It was: "You're Pamela Hendrickson?' Then all of a sudden, what I wanted to see wasn't available.”

Hendrickson says she asked McDowell why, then, she'd been faxed supposedly available apartments that now were not available. McDowell replied that she was willing to take Ms. Hendrickson to see other apartments that were not marked on the list, according to the suit. McDowell showed Hendrickson apartments in poor condition, all of which were “in areas of Capitol Hill with a predominately African-American population.”

While Yarmouth attorney Luchs won't comment on much of the case, he does say that a big point of contention will be the allegation that certain Capitol Hill neighborhoods are predominately black or white.

But it's not that the neighborhoods were black that initially bothered Hendrickson, it's that they were obviously unsafe. “I said: "We don't even need to get out of the car.' It looked like we were in the 'hood. I wasn't going there. You know, I'm a young woman. Living alone. I have to take precautions.”

Hendrickson insisted on seeing at least one of the apartments on the faxed list. McDowell agreed to show her an apartment in a nice house at 9th and East Capitol Streets SE. According to the daily list, the apartment was renting for $625. Until Hendrickson insisted on seeing it, she claims, McDowell nonetheless maintained the flat was unavailable. Once she saw the apartment, Hendrickson feared that she wouldn't be able to find anything else. So she filled out the necessary forms and paid a $10 application fee.

The next day, Dec. 1, Hendrickson called McDowell to check on her application. According to the suit, McDowell told her that Yarmouth was having problems processing her application, and therefore required the telephone numbers and addresses of her previous landlords. Hendrickson obliged.

Hendrickson began to feel that something was amiss, so on Dec. 2 she asked her supervisor, Master Chief Journalist Jimmy Bell to accompany her back to Yarmouth. They arrived in dress blues. “We looked sharp,” laughs Hendrickson.

McDowell told her the apartment on 9th Street had been rented to friends of the owners. Before she left the office, Hendrickson looked at the daily listings and noticed that apartments she had been told were unavailable continued to be listed as vacant. McDowell explained that those apartments had applications pending, but told Hendrickson she could show her other apartments the next day. According to the suit, when Hendrickson showed up the following day, McDowell told her there were no apartments to see, even though the daily listings sheets again listed Hendrickson's original choices as available.

“I was fuming,” says Hendrickson. That day, she viewed and rented an apartment she found through a classified ad, but she wasn't done with Yarmouth yet. During the following two weeks, Hendrickson periodically stopped by Yarmouth and picked up the daily list of vacancies. According to the suit, all of the apartments McDowell had refused to show her continued to be listed as available—including the apartment that had supposedly been rented to friends of the owners.

On the advice of Master Chief Journalist Bell, Hendrickson contacted the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington, a nonprofit that promotes equal housing opportunity and enforces fair housing laws in D.C., Northern Virginia, and Southern Maryland. When FHC believes that charges of racial discrimination are legitimate, it sends in volunteers—one white, the other black—to test the reception they receive from rental agents, lenders, or landlords.

“Testing means that it's no longer he said/she said,” says David Berenbaum, executive director of FHC, which received about 250 complaints of various types of housing discrimination last year.

On Jan. 13, 1994, FHC conducted a test of Yarmouth that it ruled was inconclusive due to tester error.

On May 12, FHC again sent a black woman, Marguerite Mbouma, and a white man, Chris Walker, to look at apartments under $750. Both had already had the daily list faxed to them. According to the suit, upon meeting Mbouma, McDowell crossed two apartments—one at 6th and North Carolina Avenue SE and another at B and 6th Streets SE—off the list. Instead, McDowell took her to the Audubon building on 13th Street NE, a squat blue building at 14th and Potomac Avenue SE, and a house at 2nd and 11th Streets NE. According to the suit, “all were basement apartments of poor quality and were located in predominately African-American areas.”

When asked by Mbouma, McDowell admitted there were other, better apartments near the Senate and Union Station, neighborhoods that the suit contends are more racially mixed. Mbouma indicated she didn't have time to view the better apartments.

When the white male tester—Chris Walker—showed up, he got an entirely different reception, according to the suit. McDowell recommended two apartments—including the very nice row house at 6th and North Carolina Avenue SE that she had just told Mbouma was already rented. That apartment, says the suit, is located in a majority white area.

On June 19, McDowell called both Mbouma and Walker to tell them that a one-bedroom had become available at 6th and C Streets SE. According to the suit, she told Walker that the apartment had been leasing for $750, but that his rent could be negotiated. But, the suit says, McDowell told Mbouma that the rent was $795, plus $50 for electricity, and did not indicate any leeway in the price.

FHC took its findings to its counsel, John Relman. An attorney with the Washington Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Relman has represented plaintiffs in notable discrimination cases, including the one brought by African-American Secret Service agents against Denny's restaurants. Robert Duncan of powerhouse firm Hogan & Hartson is also representing Hendrickson and FHC pro bono.

Yarmouth's directors—Wilmer J. Waller and Judith S. Zinter—and McDowell have yet to be deposed, says Relman, so there is no way to know if the experiences of Hendrickson and the testers are isolated, or part of a much larger pattern of discrimination. Yarmouth's previous tenants and people who wanted to become tenants are also to be interviewed. Until then, there is also no way to know whether or not McDowell's actions were dictated by the attitudes of her superiors.

“But it doesn't really matter. A company can't delegate away responsibility,” Relman says. Under the Fair Housing Act, a company is responsible for the actions of its agents, even if it contends those actions were rogue. The law was written that way because otherwise, Relman says, a company could protect itself from litigation by generating memos decrying discrimination when in fact it actually encourages it. All agents in D.C. must go through a three-hour training session familiarizing themselves with fair housing laws every two years.

Relman and Luchs agree that, in all likelihood, the case will be settled. If a pattern of discrimination is found, Yarmouth might have to agree to some kind of monitoring, says Luchs. Defendants don't want these cases to go to trial, says Luchs, because the litigation can be fantastically expensive. Recently, the William J. Davis Co. had to pay $2.4 million in damages to plaintiffs who, with the help of Relman, proved the company had discriminated against families with children. And settlement isn't all that cheap either. Most cases, Relman and Luchs agree, settle in the six-figure range.

Meanwhile, the Navy has sent Hendrickson to attend Syracuse University's prestigious Newhouse School of Communication. When she gets her degree, she will be shipped overseas to resume her duties as a video producer and director.

Hendrickson says she's glad her supervisors and shipmates encouraged her to pursue her case against Yarmouth and McDowell. “It's probably happened to others who were perceived as not credible. There is no disputing my credits,” Hendrickson says emphatically. “I'm sad that it happened, but glad that I stood up. There's no telling how many other people had been treated this way. I know I was treated this way because I am black.”

Agents and landlords “see a person, see the color of their skin. And just like banks, when they see a young African-American woman, they tend to assume unemployment, that she won't make the rent, that her friends are drug dealers. It happens a lot. It happens to young African-American men all the time,” says Relman. “The tragic thing is that in this case, we have a young woman on a meteoric rise in the Navy. An absolute star with rave reviews. It's a perfect example of how destructive discrimination is. Just as discrimination tears at the person, and lowers their self-esteem, so does discrimination strip the landlord of a wonderfully qualified tenant.”

Our Readers Say

This still goes on til this day. They notice there's a black person on the other end of the phone and nothing is available. The prices are ridiculous nowadays and it's really a shame. They post the "For Rent" signs up because they have property available....right?

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