JACKSON — The owners of a Mississippi apartment rental company have agreed to pay damages to four prospective tenants who helped uncover a pattern of racial discrimination by their employee that violated federal law, the U.S. Justice Department has announced.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi ruled in August that Steven and Sheila Maulding and their company, SSM Properties, violated the Fair Housing Act based on the discriminatory conduct of now ex-employee James Roe, according to a department statement issued Monday.
The Justice Department said the Mauldings agreed to pay $123,000 to resolve the suit, and that Roe is required to pay a $3,000 civil penalty to the government.
In 2020, the Justice Department sued the Mauldings and Roe, who had been employed by the couple to manage their three apartment complexes in Pearl, Mississippi. The government filed the lawsuit on behalf of four Black fair housing testers. The suit was based on findings from a series of tests conducted by the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization.
“The four African American testers in this case were subjected to dehumanizing treatment that was entirely unacceptable,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “Because of their bravery and willingness to serve their communities as investigators, we hope that tenants in the greater Jackson area will now have greater access to more equitable housing opportunities.”
Between November 2016 and November 2017, the organization investigated whether apartment complexes in the Jackson area were complying with federal housing law.
According to the organization, the tests compared responses given by housing providers to different types of home-seekers in order to determine whether or not illegal discrimination was occurring.
During this period, Roe managed the Mauldings’ apartment complexes. His duties included responding to rental inquiries, renting units to prospective tenants, approving rental applications and showing units.
When the Black people hired as testers visited the apartments, according to the complaint, Roe misled them about what units were available and subjected them to racist comments. He allegedly told one Black tester that he wouldn’t let her rent an apartment near white tenants, it said.
“I can’t put you at Pearl Manor. Them old men’ll have a heart attack. They’ll be thinking I done let the zoo out again,” Roe said, the complaint stated.
Before the woman met Roe in person, he told her on the phone that a unit was available. When she arrived at the rental office, Roe told her she wasn’t what he “expected,” and told her the unit had been rented, the complaint said.
Federal attorneys said Black testers were not told about unit vacancies at two of the apartment complexes. They said white testers who visited around the same time were told of vacancies and encouraged to rent there. Roe also asked Black testers more detailed questions about their financial status and ability to pay than white testers, the complaint said.
The lawsuit said the Mauldings were responsible for Roe’s behavior because he was their employee.
The married couple has entered into a three-year consent decree with the Justice Department that will require them to pay damages and develop practices for ensuring their apartments meet federal housing standards.
Deshun Martin, an attorney for the Mauldings, said they planned to comply with the consent decree. He also said they fired Roe when they learned of his conduct.
“The Mauldings were going through health challenges — cancer, heart issues, the loss of a brother — and they were completely unaware of what was happening at their own property with Mr. Roe and these racist acts,” Martin said. “They never condoned them.”
When The Associated Press reached Roe by phone and asked for comment, he hung up. The consent decree permanently banned him from managing any residential property.
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