By Kristi Reed

The Winder Housing Authority (WHA) will pay up to $490,000 in fines to settle a lawsuit alleging that the authority engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminating against African-American tenants and housing applicants.

John Stell, attorney for the WHA, said the Department of Justice requested records from the housing authority over two years ago. The authority supplied the information as requested. The Justice Department based their complaint on statistics derived from those records, Stelll said.

“They have never confirmed to us that they have identified any victim of discrimination,” Stell said. “We are aware of no instances of discrimination and we don’t believe there has been any. The Department of Justice has not confirmed that they have identified a single case of discrimination.”

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court in Gainesville, alleged that the WHA maintained racially segregated housing. Applicants were assigned to vacant units based on race rather than position on the waiting list, according to the Department of Justice.

According to the complaint, the WHA placed white applicants ahead of black applicants on the waiting list in order to fill vacancies in predominantly white housing complexes. If the vacancy was in a predominantly minority complex, the WHA would place black applicants ahead of white applicants.

The complaint also alleges that the WHA subjected African-American tenants to inferior terms and conditions of rental.

The authority decided to settle the lawsuit due to the prohibitively high cost of litigation. The WHA, a separate and distinct legal entity from the City of Winder, would have paid tens of thousands of dollars over a prolonged period of time to defend the complaint, according to Stell.

In the settlement announced last week, the WHA will be required to implement nondiscriminatory policies and procedures to ensure compliance with the Fair Housing Act.

The WHA is a public housing authority that provides housing for persons of low income in Barrow County, Ga. Currently, the WHA owns and maintains nine public housing complexes in the city of Winder, and the neighboring towns of Statham and Braselton, Ga.

Braselton City Manager Jennifer Scott said the authority operates an apartment complex on Piedmont Street in Braselton. The City of Braselton has no dealings with the WHA, according to Scott.

Attempts to reach former Executive Director Greg Butts with the Winder Housing Authority were unsuccessful.

Butts, who recently took a job in another state, was not implicated in any wrongdoing according to Stell.

“Greg did a wonderful job. He was an excellent director. We hated to see him go,” Stell said.

Grace Chung Becker, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said every person, including individuals who seek public assistance, has a right to be free from racial discrimination in housing.

“The Department will continue its vigorous enforcement of the Fair Housing Act,” she said.

Once approved by the court, the decree will require the WHA to provide training to its employees regarding nondiscriminatory policies and procedures and the Fair Housing Act. The WHA must also make housing units available for rent with the same terms and conditions for all applicants.

Additionally, the WHA will establish a $450,000 fund to compensate individuals who suffered damages as a result of the WHA’s discriminatory policies and will pay a $40,000 civil penalty to the United States.

Individuals who believe that they may have been victims of housing discrimination can call the Housing Discrimination Tip Line at 1-800-896-7743, e-mail the Justice Department at fairhousing@usdoj.gov, or contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at 1-800-669-9777.

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