This week, the Justice Department settled two lawsuits against defendants charged with discriminatory housing practices.

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that it had settled a lawsuit against Sussex County, Delaware and the Planning and Zoning Commission of Sussex County for violations of the Fair Housing Act.  The lawsuit alleges that Sussex County engaged in race and national origin discrimination when its planning and zoning commission denied land use approval for an affordable housing subdivision to be built, in part based on the supposition that African-American and Latino residents primarily would reside there.

The settlement requires the defendant to “take affirmative steps to provide for future affordable housing, communicate its commitment to fair housing, and establish mechanisms to ensure affordable and fair housing in Sussex County.”  Regarding the instant application, the defendant is required to reconsider the development using nondiscriminatory criteria and to pay the developer, Diamond State Community Land Trust, $750,000 in damages.  Also, the county must appoint a fair housing compliance officer to ensure the county conforms to the requirements of the settlement and to the provisions of the Fair Housing Act.

A report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regarding Sussex County’s treatment of Diamond State Community Land Trust’s application is what led to the lawsuit.  HUD and Sussex County entered into a voluntary compliance agreement Wednesday, which resolves an enforcement action taken by HUD surrounding the same application.  The Voluntary Compliance Agreement binds Sussex County to several steps, including developing a fair housing plan and evaluating ways to develop infrastructure in existing minority and low-income communities.

Thursday, the Justice Department reached a settlement with the manager and owner of the Geneva Terrace Apartments Inc. located in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  The complaint, filed October 26, 2011, alleged that the apartment manager told African-American applicants that units in the complex were unavailable when they were, and gave preference to white rental applicants.  When an African-American couple inquired about a vacancy, the apartment manager told them there were no available apartments, despite a sign at the complex advertising vacancies.  The couple asked a white friend to contact the apartment complex.  The friend was told that the complex had vacancies.  The couple then reported the complex to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council (MMFHC) who, after completing their own investigation and finding other African-American prospective renters similarly treated, filed a complaint with HUD.

The defendants have agreed to pay $57,000 in the settlement, $47,000 of which will be paid to the complainants in damages.  The remaining $10,000 of the settlement is a civil penalty paid to the United States.  Geneva Terrace Apartments LLC also was ordered maintain nondiscriminatory housing practices to will comply with the provisions of the Fair Housing Act.

Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, has pledged that the Department of Justice will “continue to vigorously enforce the [Fair Housing Act] to ensure access to housing regardless of the race of an applicant.”  Housing discrimination remains prevalent in the United States, and the Justice Department’s continued efforts to curb it should be commended, and continued.