Decades-Old Housing Discrimination Case Plagues Donald Trump

Sep 29, 2016
Originally published on September 30, 2016 10:07 am

During the presidential debate on Monday night, Hillary Clinton raised a 1973 federal lawsuit brought against Donald Trump and his company for alleged racial discrimination at Trump housing developments in New York.

The Justice Department sued Donald Trump, his father, Fred, and Trump Management in order to obtain a settlement in which Trump and his father would promise not to discriminate. The case eventually was settled two years later after Trump tried to countersue the Justice Department for $100 million for making false statements. Those allegations were dismissed by the court.

"Donald started his career, back in 1973, being sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination — because he would not rent apartments in one of his developments to African-Americans, and he made sure that the people who worked for him understood that was the policy," Clinton said on Monday night.

Trump responded to Clinton by emphasizing that the case was settled with no admission of guilt.

"Yes, when I was very young, I went into my father's company — had a real estate company in Brooklyn and Queens," Trump said. "And we, along with many, many other companies throughout the country — it was a federal lawsuit — were sued. We settled the suit with zero, with no admission of guilt."

The lawsuit was based on evidence gathered by testers for the New York City Human Rights Division, which alleged that black people who went to Trump buildings were told there were no apartments available, while white people were offered units.

Back then, Sheila Morse worked as one of those testers. When a black New Yorker was turned down for service and racial bias was suspected, Morse, who is white, would be dispatched to see if she received different treatment.

In this case, a black man in search of an apartment in Brooklyn in 1972 saw a sign on a building: "apartment for rent."

"He met with the superintendent, and the superintendent said, 'I'm very sorry, but the apartment is rented — it's gone,' " Morse says. "So the gentlemen said to him, 'Well, why is the sign out? I still see a sign that says apartment for rent.' And the superintendent said, 'Oh, I guess I forgot to take it down.' "

When Morse went to the building to ask about the same apartment, she says, "They greeted me with open arms and showed me every aspect of the apartment."

Morse says she reported her experience to the Human Rights Commission, and then returned to the apartment building. After she was offered a lease, the black man who had tried to rent the apartment entered the office with a city human rights commissioner, and the three of them confronted the building superintendent.

"He said, 'Well, I'm only doing what my boss told me to do — I am not allowed to rent to black tenants,' " Morse says.

The commissioner asked the building superintendent to take him to his boss. That turned out to be Trump Management.

Washington Post reporter Michael Kranish, co-author of the book Trump Revealed, tells NPR's Robert Siegel that the Justice Department considered the case "one of the most significant race bias cases" at the time.

"They signed what was called a consent order," Kranish says. "Trump fought the case for two years. ... He says it was very easy, but actually he fought the case for two years."

The Trumps took essentially the first settlement offer the federal government provided, Kranish says; the Trumps did not, in fact, have to admit guilt in settling the suit.

"[The settlement] required the Trumps to place ads in newspapers saying that they welcomed black applicants," Kranish says. "It said that the Trumps would familiarize themselves with the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination. So it also specifically said they don't admit wrongdoing, but they did have to take several measures that the Trumps had fought for two years not to take."

Trump claims the Justice Department lawsuit was just one of many housing cases against many landlords, but Kranish says this description is misleading.

"Well, there were cases brought against various companies, but the point here is that Trump has said in the debate — and he also told me when I interviewed him at Trump Tower earlier this year — that this was part of one massive suit." Kranish says, "And in fact, this very specifically is a case that charges Donald Trump, Fred Trump and their company of race bias in housing rentals. ... It was one of the largest cases of the time. ...

"It was a suit that was directly against them, and it is one that Donald Trump to this day clearly is upset about."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to dig in now into a story brought up at this week's presidential debate involving Donald Trump and allegations of racial discrimination decades ago at Trump housing developments in New York City. Here's what Hillary Clinton said about Trump on Monday night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: Donald started his career back in 1973 being sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination because he would not rent apartments in one of his developments to African-Americans. And he made sure that the people who worked for him understood that was the policy.

SIEGEL: And here's how Donald Trump responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Yes, when I was very young, I went into my father's company - had a real estate company in Brooklyn and Queens. And we, along with many, many other companies throughout the country - it was a federal lawsuit - were sued. We settled the suit with zero - with no admission of guilt.

SIEGEL: Trump later emphasized again, no admission of guilt. Well, we wanted to know more about the Justice Department's case against Donald Trump and his father, Fred. And it gets started in the early 1970s in New York when Donald Trump was in his late 20s.

Back then, Sheila Morse was what's called a tester for the New York City Human Rights Commission. When a black New Yorker was turned down for service and suspected racial bias, Morse, who was white, would be dispatched to see if she got different treatment. In 1972, a black man in search of an apartment in Brooklyn saw a sign on a building that said apartment for rent.

SHEILA MORSE: He went in. He met with the superintendent, and the superintendent said, I'm very sorry, but the apartment is rented. It's gone. So the gentleman said to him, well, why is the sign out? I still see a sign that says apartment for rent. And the superintendent said, oh, I guess I forgot to take it down. And that was that.

SIEGEL: You, as a tester, then were sent in to inquire about an apartment in the very same building.

MORSE: Exactly, yes.

SIEGEL: What did they tell you?

MORSE: Oh, they greeted me with open arms and showed me every aspect of the apartment.

SIEGEL: Sheila Morse says she reported back to the Human Rights Commission and then returned to the apartment building in Brooklyn. After she was offered a lease, the man who had tried to rent the apartment and the city Human Rights Commissioner entered the office. And the three of them confronted the building superintendent.

MORSE: He said, well, I'm only doing what my boss told me to do. I am not allowed to rent to black tenants. So the commissioner said, OK, can you take us to your boss? And he said, yeah, I guess I can.

And then we went to the boss, and it was an office building in Coney Island. And when we got there, there was a great big sign that said Trump Management, and it was Donald Trump and Fred Trump, his father.

SIEGEL: That's Sheila Morse who now lives in Henderson, Nev. We're going to turn now to Michael Kranish, a co-author of the book "Trump Revealed," The Washington Post biography of Donald Trump. Thanks for joining us once again.

MICHAEL KRANISH: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: You write about this story in the book. What became of the findings like those of Sheila Morse?

KRANISH: The information from Sheila Morse and other testers was brought to the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, and eventually they decided to file suit. And that suit was brought against Donald Trump, Fred Trump and their company, Trump Management. So that was considered by the Justice Department, at the time, one of the most significant race bias cases. And it was something that they pursued very vigorously and that they eventually reached a consent order on.

SIEGEL: Trump said that they settled the case with no admission of guilt - true or false?

KRANISH: Well, they do not have to admit guilt. They signed what was called a consent order. Trump fought the case for two years. So he says it was very easy, but actually he fought the case for two years. His attorney Roy Cohn filed a $100 million counterclaim against the federal government. That was tossed out.

And two years later they eventually settled on the grounds that were first offered to them essentially by the federal government. And that required the Trumps to place ads in newspapers saying that they welcomed black applicants. It said that the Trumps would familiarize themselves with the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination. So it also specifically said they don't admit wrongdoing. But they did have to take several measures that that Trumps had fought for two years not to take.

SIEGEL: Trump has said that the Justice Department lawsuit was just one of many housing cases against many landlords. Is that true?

KRANISH: Well, there were cases brought against various companies, but the point here is that Trump has said in the debate - and he also told me when I interviewed him at Trump Tower earlier this year - that this was part of one massive suit. And in fact this very specifically is a case that charges Donald Trump, Fred Trump and their company of race bias in housing rental.

So it was very specifically against them, and it was one of the largest cases of the time. So to portray it as one case rolled into many and that many were sued together, that would not be the correct impression to give. It was a suit that was directly against them, and it is one that Donald Trump to this day clearly is upset about.

SIEGEL: That's Michael Kranish of The Washington Post. He's co-author along with Marc Fisher of The Post of the book "Trump Revealed." Michael Kranish, thanks.

KRANISH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.