An unusual Department of Justice lawsuit accusing the owner and manager of a Baldwin Borough apartment complex of racial discrimination brings to the federal court an issue that usually remains below the housing market's surface.
Federal attorneys late Monday sued S-2 Properties Inc., owner of the 100-apartment Baldwin Commons, and manager Bill Turzai. The complaint alleged that whites were encouraged to move into the complex, pronto, while blacks were told they would be placed on a waiting list.
Attorney John Corcoran, who represents S-2 Properties, called the claim "absolutely meritless."
Others said that the only thing striking about the allegation is that it made it to federal court.
"We call it discrimination with a smile and a handshake," said Jay Dworin, executive director of the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh, which was not involved in the case. "That's what we see here in Pittsburgh. ... Most of the time, this stuff is settled administratively prior to it ever reaching the Department of Justice."
The department's housing and civil enforcement section, which is based in Washington, D.C., and is handling the case against S-2 Properties, employs "testers" who pretend to be looking for apartments in order to check for discrimination.
On Feb. 19, Baldwin Commons offered a white tester a two-bedroom townhome, federal attorneys wrote. On the following day, a black tester was told that the complex was "fully occupied."
Hours later, another white male tester visited. "Mr. Turzai told the white male tester that a unit was available to rent immediately and that he should 'snag it,' " according to the complaint.
Similar tests conducted in March and April produced similar results, with white testers told that an apartment was "ready to go," while black males were told they could be put on a waiting list, the attorneys wrote.
Mr. Dworin, whose nonprofit partnership conducts similar "sandwich tests" -- in which a black person visits between two whites -- said that's a "fairly common" result.
He said his partnership gets around 140 complaints of housing discrimination annually, of which two-thirds are resolved quickly. The partnership takes the other cases to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the state Human Relations Commission or Pittsburgh's Human Relations Commission.
It's rare that any landlord fights all the way to the Department of Justice, said Mr. Dworin.
S-2 Properties, though, appears inclined to fight the accusation.
"My clients do not, and have never discriminated against anyone, period," said Mr. Corcoran, declining to respond in more detail.
The department alleges that the landlord's conduct violated the Fair Housing Act by treating would-be tenants differently based on race. The complaint seeks monetary damages and civil penalties.
A Bureau of Justice Statistics report published in 2008 found that in 2006, the last year studied, the federal government was the plaintiff in just 32 housing discrimination cases nationwide, while individual accusers sued privately in 593 cases.
The lawsuit against S-2 Properties, though, is the second housing discrimination lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice in Western Pennsylvania this year. In June, the department sued the City Rescue Mission of New Castle and one of its program managers, saying they effectively turned away a blind man by refusing to accommodate his guide dog.
The mission's attorneys have filed a motion to dismiss the case, and last month argued in court papers that religious organizations are exempt from the Fair Housing Act. The mission, according to the court filing, is a member of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.