TRENTON – The Division on Civil Rights announced today that an Essex County apartment building owner has agreed to pay a Jersey City man $3,000 to resolve allegations that he arranged by telephone to show the man a rental unit, then reneged after seeing him in person and realizing he was African-American.
In addition to the $3,000 payout, apartment building owner George Testa, of South Orange, has agreed to undergo state monitoring of his rental practices for a year, maintain records of rental-related activities for at least three years, and develop a written non-discrimination policy for distribution to his tenants. Testa also is subject to a $7,000 suspended penalty, payable to the State, if he fails to comply with any terms of the settlement during the next two years.
Testa, who owns a building in Orange that houses two stores and eight apartments, was accused of arranging to show a rental unit to prospective tenant Charles Lawson in December 2010, then avoiding Lawson once he arrived and it became evident he was African-American.
A Finding of Probable Cause issued by the Division in 2012 includes a narrative in which Lawson allegedly arrived at a pre-arranged time to view the apartment, waited two hours outside for a no-show Testa and tried unsuccessfully to reach him by cell phone, began to drive away and, after pulling a U-turn, saw Testa get in a red car that had been parked in front of the building and leave.
“The kind of discriminatory conduct alleged here was deeply troubling. Everyone has a right to be treated equally in the pursuit of safe housing for their families,” said Division on Civil Rights Director Craig T. Sashihara.
“In New Jersey, you can't deny housing to someone based on assumptions you made by peering through a window and noticing his or her skin color,” Sashihara added.
Lawson called in response to an apartment-for-rent ad on nj.com on December 7, 2010 and spoke with a woman who identified herself as Ms. Testa. Lawson said he explained to the woman that he was calling in response to the apartment rental ad, and she gave the telephone to a man who identified himself as George Testa. Lawson said he and Testa arranged to meet at Testa’s apartment building at 3 p.m. the next day.
According to Lawson, he arrived at the building 15 minutes early and waited for Testa for about a half-hour. He said the building had an “Apartment for Rent” sign on the entrance door, and that a store called “Odds & Ends” was on the first floor. Lawson alleged that he saw a caucasian man sitting inside the store staring at him through the window.
Testa never met with Lawson that afternoon. Lawson called Testa’s home telephone number and Testa’s wife assured him that her husband was there. She told him to look for his red car. After waiting outside for approximately another hour, Lawson alleged, he started his car and drove north on South Essex Avenue. Upon making a U-turn and driving back toward Testa’s building, he said, he saw the man who had been watching him from the store get into a red Saab and drive away while Lawson honked his car horn in a fruitless attempt to get his attention.
Under terms of the settlement agreement, Testa makes no admission of wrongdoing. In addition to paying Lawson, Testa must develop and retain records containing information on who has applied to him for rental housing, whether they were offered an opportunity to rent, and the reasons for any rejection. He also must file two reports with the Division on Civil Rights – at six-month intervals – that provide information on apartment vacancies available, how the vacancies were advertised, how many applicants there were for each unit, the names and contact information of those who applied, the reason a particular rental applicant was selected, and the reason any unsuccessful applicants were not chosen.
Under the settlement, Testa also has agreed to abolish his past, unlawful practice of refusing to rent to applicants with children, and to explicitly state that he has abolished his “no children” rule in the written non-discrimination policy he must develop and distribute to his tenants.
Deputy Attorney General Megan Harris, assigned to the Division of Law, and Investigator Henry Hammond handled the Testa matter on behalf of the Division on Civil Rights.