Marcella Dix Brown didn't think housing discrimination could happen in Los Angeles.
"I didn't feel it could happen to me," the young black woman said as she described what happened when she inquired about an apartment in Silver Lake.
"The manager, a lady, had a nice smile," Brown recalled. "I asked if she had any vacancies. She said no.
"A few minutes after I left, a white male went in with her. She showed him two or three places. I was sitting in the car. When he came back he said, 'You have experienced housing discrimination for the first time.' "
It was 1983 and Brown was on her first assignment as a checker for the Hollywood Wilshire Fair Housing Council. She and a co-worker were looking into a complaint of racial discrimination at the apartment hotel.
"I was so mad," Brown said. "It was such a sleazy looking place. I wouldn't have anyone stay there."
Since then, Brown has seen the pattern repeated many times in the area covered by the Hollywood-Wilshire Fair Housing Council.
She has investigated complaints of discrimination in housing based on race, sexual preference, national origin, marital status, age, children, handicap or student status. Complaints involving race make up the largest category of those received by the four fair housing councils in the City of Los Angeles.
The four councils investigated 476 discrimination complaints in Los Angeles during fiscal 1983-84. Of those, 180 were based on race. Since the first of the year, 44 complaints have been filed on the Westside; 17 were based on race. Seven of those were confirmed by checkers, according to Diego Cardoso, a Westside Fair Housing Council checker.
Blanche Rosloff, director of the Westside council, said "about 40% of the complaints of racial discrimination are real and not imagined." In the Hollywood-Wilshire district, 111 complaints have been filed since Jan. 1, with 46 based on race and 16 verified by checkers. Alan Nakashima, director of the Hollywood-Wilshire council, estimated that between 30% and 40% of the investigations confirm discrimination.
The Hollywood-Wilshire Council reports all verified complaints to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which also investigates to determine whether legal action should be taken.
The Westside office takes another tack, attempting to persuade the landlords that they are breaking the law and reconcile them with the tenants.
Representatives of both the Hollywood-Wilshire and the Westside councils said most of their complaints of racial discrimination come from blacks.
To illustrate the problems that blacks face, Brown talked about another incident that occured on the day she began as a checker.
She and her husband had made an appointment to look at an apartment for themselves in West Hollywood. Their telephone inquiry had been warmly received, she said, but when they arrived, the manager told them there were no vacancies.
Brown said she was stunned, but the incident spurred her to action. At the urging of Nakashima, she looked up the owner of the 60-unit apartment building in a special directory that the council uses. She discovered that one corporation owned that building and four others.
Teams of black and white checkers went to each building asking about vacancies.
"We found solid discrimination (against blacks) at three of the five buildings--the one in West Hollywood, one in Hollywood and one in the Wilshire area," she said.
As a result, the council filed a complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing and received a settlement of $3,500 from the owners. Brown has also filed a private lawsuit against the corporation. It is pending.
Whether it is because blacks are subjected to more housing discrimination than others or simply that they are quicker to complain about it, the statistics seem to bear out claims by council members that in Los Angeles, blacks are the group most likely to face housing discrimination.
Complaints from Latinos are rare in both Westside councils and complaints from Asians are practically nonexistent. Through the efforts of Cardoso, who speaks Spanish, the Westside council is receiving a few more complaints from Latinos. All of the councils have some Spanish-speaking staff members.
If Asians are encountering discrimination, they are not reporting it, according to Nakashima, whose Hollywood-Wilshire council covers areas where large numbers of Asians live, such as Koreatown, Chinatown and Little Tokyo.
"We don't get any complaints from Asians," Nakashima said. "I think part of it is cultural. They don't like to be embarrassed by admitting they have been turned down because of ancestry. I just feel they would rather go to another place."
Nakashima also said that he observed little resistance to renting or selling to Asians during the five years he worked as a checker in the Hollywood-Wilshire office.
Although racial discrimination occurs throughout the Westside and Hollywood-Wilshire districts, most occurs in communities that are in transition from all-white to mixed neighborhoods, council spokesmen said.
One such area in the Hollywood-Wilshire district is bounded 3rd and 6th streets and Vermont and Western avenues.
Early last year, under a grant from the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the Hollywood-Wilshire council tested 14 apartment buildings and found evidence of racial discrimination at five of them, Nakashima said.
According to Nakashima, one landlord told him, "You'll like this building. No kids, no pets, no blacks."
Other areas where reports of racial discrimination are increasing are Hollywood and Los Feliz, Nakashima said.
Two volunteer checkers who live in Hollywood, Joan and Don Decker, say that they were discriminated against in their previous apartment building. Joan is black and her husband of 19 years is white.
The council was unable to verify the Deckers' claim but the couple have saved a note that they say the building manager left on their door after months of harassment.
It depicts a shirtless, muscle-bound, hairy man wearing a black mask, tight pants and boots, and wielding an ax. It reads in part, "No More Games, Now You-All."
The Deckers eventually moved out.
On the Westside, the combination of high rents and low vacancy rates makes it difficult to recognize racial discrimination, according to the Westside council's director Rosloff. Sophisticated landlords can subtly discriminate by simply asking blacks for higher rents than they would whites. They can require them to have better jobs or earn more money to qualify for an apartment, Rosloff said.
The Westside council covers the area from Pacific Palisades to El Segundo and from La Cienega to the ocean. Hollywood-Wilshire covers the area bounded by La Cienega Boulevard, the Los Angeles River, Mulholland Drive and the Santa Monica Freeway.
The Metro-Harbor council covers the South Bay and the fourth council covers the San Fernando Valley.
The councils are funded through the Fair Housing Congress, an umbrella organization. The Westside Council also has contracts with Beverly Hills, Culver City, Inglewood, Marina del Rey and Lawndale to provide counseling. It does no investigating in those cities.
Each council has a small paid staff, with volunteers doing most of the checking. The Westside Council also has an attorney who volunteers a few hours a week to counsel clients.
"The people we hear from are the ones who have had it and decided to take a step," Rosloff said.