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Feds allege discrimination against black renters in Baldwin Borough

| Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, 12:03 p.m.

A Baldwin Borough apartment manager turned away black men, promising to put their names on a waiting list, but told white men that apartments were available, the Justice Department said on Tuesday.

“This is the face of modern discrimination,” said Jay Dworin, executive director of the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh, which isn't involved in the case. “It's what we call discrimination with a smile and a handshake.”

In a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the government said it conducted three tests from February to April. It accuses Bill Turzai, manager of Baldwin Commons, of offering apartments to a white tester but telling a black tester hours later or the next day that none was available. He subsequently told another white tester that an apartment was open, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit names Turzai, who did not return calls, and S-2 Properties of Castle Shannon, which owns the 100-unit complex.

John Corcoran, a lawyer for S-2 Properties, said the company and Turzai deny the allegations.

“The claims are absolutely meritless,” Corcoran said. “My clients do not and have not discriminated against anyone.”

The government is seeking civil penalties and an injunction under the Fair Housing Act that would keep Turzai and S-2 Properties from refusing to rent to people because of their race.

Connie Parker, president of the NAACP's Pittsburgh unit, said she hasn't heard complaints about Baldwin Commons, but such discrimination is common.

“That's the same old agenda that's been going on for years,” she said.

Though minorities tend to face increased discrimination when the economy is weak, she said, her office hasn't noticed an increase in housing discrimination complaints.

“I would hope it wouldn't increase,” Parker said.

Dworin said Fair Housing Partnership hasn't tested Baldwin Commons recently but regularly uses the method described in the lawsuit to test landlords, lending agencies, Realtors and insurers involved with housing to determine whether they discriminate based on race, religion, national origin, disability, family status or other factors.

The “sandwich test” of sending three testers, one of whom has the characteristic for which the organization is testing, is an established method of rooting out housing discrimination that has survived repeated court challenges, he said.

“At the end of the day, the tests don't lie,” Dworin said. “If you tell a control tester that it's available, a protected tester that it's not, and another control tester that it is, the facts speak for themselves.”

The nonprofit annually handles about 130 cases that advance past initial screenings to weed out frivolous complaints. It refers about 40 to 50 of those cases to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which typically reaches agreements with landlords or other housing entities without filing lawsuits, he said.

One of the highest-profile housing discrimination cases in the Pittsburgh area involved a 1988 lawsuit against the Allegheny County Public Housing Authority and HUD that dragged for 15 years.

Cheryl Sanders and other tenants sued when the authority wanted to demolish Talbot Towers in Braddock and relocate them. They complained that public housing agencies placed black people in poor communities. The lawsuit was settled with an agreement known as the Sanders decree, which was meant to desegregate public housing.

Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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