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August 1. 1995

More Complaints About Housing Discrimination by MBI

by Edmund Tsang

Ten months after the Mobile daily reported that complaints of housing discrimination and sexual harrassment were launched against the officials of Mitchell Brothers, Inc. (MBI) by three former employees, five more individuals have stepped forward with similar charges. The additional charges were contained in housing discrimination complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and affidavits. Four of the five individuals ask not to be identified. Meanwhile, sources told The Harbinger that MBI is on the verge of agreeing to a settlement with those that were discriminated against by its rental practices.

Donald M. Briskman of Briskman & Binion, P.C., who is an attorney representing MBI, sent The Harbinger a written statement on July 26 after a reporter asked three MBI officials for comments a day earlier. The statement said: "Mitchell Brothers, Inc. has an outstanding record of opposing racial discrimination in any and all forms for the past thirty-five (35) years. The media is not the appropriate forum to respond to reckless charges by disgruntled former employees."

The Procedure

In a housing discrimination complaint filed in March 1995 with the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a former MBI lease agent said one practice is "to determine if prospect on the telephone were black. If so, we were instructed to not encourage them, but be cold & disinterested, hoping they would not come. If they did come, we had specific areas to show them and specific areas to 'never' show."

Another, different, complaint filed earlier in July 1994 with HUD stated: "I was instructed to not hard sell Blacks or minorities and we were told to mark the application forms a 1 or 2" [to differentiate the applicants for follow-up]. In an affidavit filed November, 1994, this same individual elaborated: "For example, a black could would walk in the office. You would take them in a golf cart and show them the worst apartment you had. You did not take them to your prime apartments, and you always know what your prime apartments were as a leasing agent. On the other hand, you told a white couple about all of the luxuries and described the many reasons that they should decide to move into the apartments."

The affidavit also said, "We had a policy that if a white couple applied, and a black couple immediately came in afterwards and applied, this was a reason to believe that it was a 'HUD Shop,' meaning that HUD was trying to determine if discrimination would occur. This meant that we were to make a 'hard sell' to the prospective black applicants. I learned this system of discrimination from former leasing agents."

Speaking Out

In an affidavit filed on November, 1994, Miriam L. Steiner, another former MBI leasing agent, stated: "When a prospective renter would come in, a preliminary screening would be done by having the person fill out an index card asking for certain information, i.e., number of children. These index cards were kept in boxes, and if a vacancy came up, we would pull the card and call the person and ask if they were still interested in an apartment.

The Cards"Since the leasing agent cannot remember from many cards which applicants were black and which were white, Debbie Brown (manager of Maison de Ville apartments) decided that an identifying mark was needed so that the blacks would not be inadvertently called. Debbie Brown decided that the leasing agent would put a mark on the top left-hand corner of the index card if the applicant was black. This meant not to call them.

"About two weeks before I was fired, Debbie Brown told me to pull the marked cards out of the file and to throw them away. I pulled the cards out and did put them in the garbage. I then decided to keep the cards. I have attached true and correct copies of these cards to this affidavit as Exhibit 1." [See adjacent table]

In a telephone interview last week, Ms. Steiner informed The Harbinger that she was employed as a leasing agent by MBI for ten months in 1991 in the Maison de Ville apartments. In her affidavit, Steiner stated, "I had been at MBI approximately one month when an affidavit was brought to me, which I was required to sign, stating that I would not discriminate against anyone and that to do so would be grounds for immediate dismissal. After I signed it, I asked Debbie Brown for a copy.

"I asked Debbie Brown if the affidavit really meant that we were supposed to lease to blacks. She said, 'Don't pay it any attention, that is just something that Jim [Spafford] wanted us to do.' I asked for a copy of the affidavit and received it." Jim Spafford is a vice president of MBI.

Ms. Steiner said that while her inability to move into and live on the premises, which is a condition for employment, was cited as the reason for her termination after ten months, she said she believes it was really because Spafford "knew my views about discrimination against anybody." "I'm glad to be away from them. That's not my style. I judge people by how they treat me," said Ms. Steiner. "There were some fine people who were turned away because they were black."

Who Is Jay Webber?

A reporter from The Harbinger called Debbie Brown, Jim Spafford, and Abraham Mitchell on July 25. Ms. Brown said she will called back when she has an opportunity to check the credentials of The Harbinger. Messages were left with Spafford and Mitchell.

Jay Webber of J.B.L. Property, called a Harbinger reporter later that day to say that, because Mitchell was just stepping out of the office, he was asked by Mitchell to return the phone call. He said he is "slightly familiar" with the charges of discrimination but the complaints are "categorically not true." He added that "there is no discrimination of any sort that has been practiced." Furthermore, "no one has been instructed about marking the cards," Webber said, "I have heard the allegations before. Not only was there no instructions, the bottom line is, housing is and was available for renting to anyone."

"It's strictly based on supply and demand," Webber said, explaining the rental practices at Maison de Ville apartments. "They have to satisfy the credit criteria and other references." Because the rent at Maison Imperial and Maison de Ville One is high, rental depends on "who can pay."

Webber told a Harbinger reporter that he would convey to Mitchell the other questions posed, because he is not familiar with them.

The next day, The Harbinger received from Donald Briskman, an attorney representing MBI, a letter which said, "In reponse to an inquiry that you made to my client, Mitchell Brothers, Inc., I enclose herewith our response."

Ricochet Effects

On September 16, 1994 a story in the Mobile Register said "federal authorities are investigating a complaint that blacks and families with children were kept from renting apartments owned by interim district attorney Abraham Mitchell and his brother." But the act of discrimination can affect others who are not the targets of the discrimination, and this is demonstrated by the account prepared by the person who filed the March 1995 housing discrimination complaint with HUD. She said an investigator interviewed her about housing discrimination.

This individual wrote: "He [the investigator] explained that he was hired by Mitchell Brothers to investigate any knowledge anyone had on these subjects. I remember asking him if this meant that people would be fired, because I signed a form at the beginning of my employment stating I would not discriminate...all the while my mind was racing, wondering what this meant to me. I just made a second move with this company and could not afford another one. As it was, it would take me a few months to recover from the utility transfer charges, new deposits and the other expenses related to moving. I had just uprooted my son again for the sake of advancement (or so I thought) with this company....As far as discrimination, I just did not remember any conversation with Diane [Diane Hall, who last year filed a lawsuit against MBI over her dismissal from the company] where I would be guilty -- so my decision was made to side with the company.

"All I could think of is that I just want to have a job, a place to live, able to buy groceries...Thus I took my stand of standing by the company -- also very unsure what charges would be brought against me if I told the truth of how I was trained, because I now was as guilty as the company, since I carried out their instruction."

In her summary report, this person outlined several methods by which she was instructed to differentiate against African-Americans and minorities: determine their accent on the telephone and not encourage those who sounded like a minority member; never show Maison de Ville I or Maison Imperial to blacks or minorities; keep a small dot at the top of information cards to indicate that applicants are black or minority-member.

A fourth former employee of MBI who spoke with The Harbinger last week also asked to remain anonymous, because "I'm a single mother" and "these are powerful people." She explained that while she did not work at the Maison de Ville apartments -- she was a leasing agent in another MBI apartment complex -- she was aware of the methods to turn away blacks and minorities from Maison Imperial and Maison de Ville I. She said she had referred a black couple with a child to Maison de Ville and was later informed, "Don't ever send anyone black over, certainly not black wtih children."

This person said her active involvement and out-spokeness in promoting the practice of fair housing policies in the Mobile Apartment Association, of which she was a charter member, got her dismissed by MBI. She added that at a managers' meeting, she "spoke up for fair housing when a manager raised concerns about a blind person applying to rent an apartment. I spoke up against the discrimination."

While she was not given a reason for her dismissal, she said, in trying to explain why she believes she was fired for her views: "I got occupancy up. I raised rents four times while I worked there." In Alabama, an employer in the private sector can dismiss an employee for cause without having to give an explanation.

Sexual Harrassment

In the September 1994 article published in the Mobile daily, Diane Hall, who filed sexual harrassment and housing discrimination complaints against officials associated with MBI, was described by MBI officials and their attorney as having a history of litigation against her employers. They also said Anita Evans and Laura Trahan, who also filed complaints against MBI, were disgruntled former employees.

Katheleen Coughlin of the Fair Housing Institute in Atlanta, who is working with Hall's attorney in her lawsuit against MBI, told The Harbinger last week that, "based on my research, there is a long, historical pattern against minorities in housing practices by MBI in Mobile." She added that they will prove that Hall was sexually harrassed by an employee of MBI and that MBI management had not done anything to stop the harrassment. Furthermore, she added that Hall was terminated because of filing a sexual harrassment complaint plus her complaint to HUD about housing discrimination practiced at the Maison de Ville apartments.

The Harbinger also spoke last week with an individual whose application form to rent an apartment at Maison de Ville was marked as being a minority-member. She requested not to be identified, and said her attorney told her that a settlement with MBI is forthcoming. She added that she is "sad that discrimination is still alive in this day and age," and that she will do "whatever it takes" to eliminate the discriminatory practices of MBI.

August 1, 1995


The Harbinger is a biweekly newspaper published through the effort of The Harbinger, which consists of area faculty, staff and students, and members of the Mobile community. The Harbinger is a non-profit education foundation. The views expressed here are the responsibility of The Harbinger. Contributions to The Harbinger are tax exempt to the full extent of the law and create no liability for the contributor.