Fair-housing group files second lawsuit against Design Place Rental Apartments

Matthew Tisdol, testing and investigation coordinator for the Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence (HOPE) in Miami-Dade County.
Matthew Tisdol, testing and investigation coordinator for the Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence (HOPE) in Miami-Dade County. Miami Herald Staff

Before Matthew Tisdol sent a group of in-training field testers to go out and monitor discriminatory housing practices in Miami-Dade County, he took soon-to-be members of the housing watchdog organization called HOPE on a practice run.

The location of the of the 2012 mock-operation was set for Design Place Miami Rental Apartments, a complex in Little Haiti and privately owned by SPV Realty, a New York-based company. Tisdol, the testing and investigation coordinator for the Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence (HOPE), says his trainees reported back exactly what HOPE looks to catch.

Keenya J. Robertson, the president & CEO of HOPE, was bothered by what she heard: On multiple occasions, black men and women posing as applicants were consistently told contradicting information compared to their white counterparts.

“These are just practice tests,” Robertson said. She adds that all six testers were well dressed and groomed. The white female tester who reported to Robertson said she was told that units were available and was shown a model. “On the same day, a black male goes in and the first thing the leasing agent says to him is, ‘Didn’t the security guard tell you that we didn’t have anything available?’”

On a later date, HOPE conducted two subsequent field test with certified testers–– the results were the same.

“What we had were two additional days where we had a structured test-team go, with each team seeing the same person, and the same thing happened that happened the very first day we sent out people doing a practice,” Robertson said.

HOPE filed its first lawsuit against SPV Realty in November 2012 for violating the Fair Housing Act during Tisdol’s sting. The two sides later reached a settlement, but SPV Realty failed to comply with the agreement, which included thousands of dollars in local charitable donations and at least $1,000 monthly to market Design Place in “African American oriented media in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.”

In December, HOPE conducted another test and Design Place failed for the second time, and the fair housing group filed its second lawsuit against SPV Realty last month.

The Miami Herald sent two email requests for comment to SPV Realty President George Dfouni, who did not reply.

Along with looking to end what HOPE calls “a corporate culture and policy of discrimination,” at Design Place, HOPE is filing another claim with state courts for failing to comply with the 2012 settlement, and December’s repeated offense.

The trial is still pending, but Tisdol says housing discrimination — based on race, disability or familial status — is all to common.

“What we’re finding here in Miami, in this melting pot, is that racial discrimination still persist and its one of the hardest things to detect,” Tisdol said. That cloak, Tisdol says, is the reason organization like HOPE came to be.

HOPE was created in 1988 and operates on a three-tier system of private enforcement, education outreach and counseling. Fair housing organizations like HOPE receive grant-based funding through the Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP) which is managed by The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Robertson, who has been with HOPE for 16 years, says she seen more than a dozen cases involving discriminatory practices. “And that’s just what we have uncovered,” Robertson said. “HOPE is only one of three fair housing organizations in the state of Florida.”

Carlos Osegueda , the Southeast Regional Director of FHEO, says organizations like HOPE play a key role in monitoring housing discrimination for HUD.

“HOPE has been a partner with us for a number of years,” Osegueda said. “They’re an invaluable part because we can only do so much with our existing resources.”

Through the Private Enforcement Initiative (PEI), a grant that fair housing organizations can apply for, Osegueda says the federal government can monitor HOPE’s strategies and approach through a statement of work. The PEI grant directly funds HOPE’s field testing.

Osegueda said housing discrimination cases are not just specific to Miami Dade County, but the entire Southeast region.

“You probably have more race based complaints in the Southeast part of the United States than we do in other regions,” Osegueda said. “My colleagues in other regions don’t have as many race based cases.”

Despite the efforts of H.O.P.E and HUD, Osegueda says the most troubling things are the cases they miss because people don’t understand their rights.

“It’s a busy world,” he said. “If somebody is not going to rent to me because I’m a Latino or because I’ve got too many kids or I’m a Muslim, all to often we just move on to the next property,” Osegueda said.

“It so important that we safeguard that rite of equal access to housing choice. It’s illegal, and people need to understand that,” he said.

Robertson, who is currently investigating three other properties, says there’s no room for apathy because “[housing discrimination] doesn’t look like what it did back in the day.”

Today, it’s more covert, she said, and no less deplorable.

“When these testers come in they’re asking for the same-sized unit, available at the same period of time, they should be told the exact same answer, each and every time,” Robertson said.