Fair Housing Battles With 'Our Own Apartheid' : Interracial Couple Receives the Support of Westside Council

Times Staff Writer

Each night before retiring, Robson Dufau hangs his "alarm system"--three bottles looped together with string--above the front door of the house on a quiet residential street in Westchester. He has instructed his 5-year-old stepson to play only in the back yard. And Dufau's wife, Tori, looks under the hood of her car before turning the ignition key.

The Dufaus are under siege, an attack that began in October, shortly after they moved into the house on a lease with option to buy. The enemy has not identified himself but his motive is clear: Robson Dufau is white and his wife is black.

Stuffed in Mailbox

The harassment began Nov. 24 when Tori, a 26-year-old school nurse, found a piece of white supremacist literature stuffed in the mailbox. "At first," she said, "I thought it was a joke." Then she looked more closely at the paper, which bore a reproduction of a 1930s Nazi propaganda piece and the logo of White Americans Organized Against Blacks. "I don't understand German," she said, "but I saw Hitler down there and I started looking at it a little more seriously."

The Dufaus reported the incident to police, who took a report, and that was that, until Jan. 20 when Tori found a National Socialist White America Party newspaper on the doorstep, "folded and placed right so you'd step on it." It bore only a post office box number in Pacific Palisades--and a vicious diatribe against "race-mixing."

Ten days later, Tori recalled, "I came home from picking my son up at school two blocks away--I was gone for 20 minutes" and, when she drove up to her house, she spotted a sheet of yellow construction paper taped to the front door. The message, hand-lettered, was "The Zoo Wants You." At the bottom was written, "United Nigger Foundation."

Angry and Stunned

"I was so upset," she said, "I just left it on the door." She was angry, and she was stunned. It all seemed like a flashback, she thought, "to those (television) films about Martin Luther King" and the civil rights strife of 20 years ago.

"I've heard about this stuff," Robson said, "but this really blew my mind. "It got me real, real mad."

Then, all was quiet, until Feb. 19 when a big manila envelope arrived in the mail from White Americans Organized Against Blacks. It bore a post office box number in the Bronx, N.Y., and a Marina del Rey postmark and it was addressed to "Resident." Inside was a typed message: "The community you presently live in has contacted us and complained of the situation" and it asked, "Why live in a neighborhood where you're not wanted?" rather than "with your own kind."

There were pictures of a cross burning in Idaho, and of Adolph Hitler. "And you thought," it read, "the days of the KKK were over. . . . "

Robson has bought a gun, although he "never thought I'd have to live like that." And Tori is thinking about learning to shoot, even though firearms are something she is "adamant against."

As of now, the Dufaus have no intention of moving. He reasons, "There are (other) neighborhoods where we could live, but we want to live somewhere where we can come home and the stereo isn't taken."

The police, they say, have been "very supportive." And they have another major ally: the Westside Fair Housing Council, whose mission it is to see that all people, of whatever race or nationality, with or without children, are not denied the right to live in the housing of their choice on the basis of discrimination.

"We parade for the end of apartheid, which we should do," said Blanche Rosloff, the council's longtime executive director, "but we have our own kind of apartheid here." She was recalling one of the council's early cases, about 1968, when it intervened for the Lakers' Kareem Abdul Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), who had been refused an apartment.

"I got the testers (volunteers and staff who pose as house hunters) out," she said, "and within a week he had the apartment. It was our first conciliation." Today, she said, blacks have no problem being accepted in any L.A. neighborhood--if they're rich and famous.

The Westside council, one of four affiliated councils that make up the Los Angeles area of the Fair Housing Congress of Southern California, in December won an out-of-court settlement of $80,000, the largest ever to a local council, in a lawsuit charging that a black man had deliberately been denied access to a Westside apartment that had posted a "for rent" sign.

Rosloff started with the council as a volunteer soon after moving here with her husband in 1968. A burned-out one-time Headstart teacher, she had learned "what separate and unequal meant" in classrooms in a poor area of Manhattan and on the south sides of Phoenix and Kansas City, Mo. She recalled, "I saw places in Kansas City that I thought had to be another country" and taught children to whom Old McDonald's Farm "didn't mean a thing."

And she had known firsthand about poverty. Her father, an immigrant from Russia in 1910, once delivered pickles by horse and buggy for $5 a week. Growing up in the Bronx, she had one school outfit to wear but, she recalled, she had the same dreams as her schoolmates.

Rosloff had arrived in California only a few years after passage of Proposition 14, the 1964 statewide ballot measure to kill anti-discrimination housing laws. (It was later struck down by the state Supreme Court.) Then, as now, she said, the primary concern of the council was to "make it possible for people to live where they choose, if they qualify."

Rosloff acknowledged, "It's not a very popular cause."

She spoke of the demonstration in November in Philadelphia, where hundreds of residents in a predominantly white neighborhood rallied to protest the arrival of two new families, one an interracial couple and the other black. The incident, she said, "sent a wave through the country," a signal that discrimination is very much alive.

On the Westside--a territory extending from the ocean east to La Cienega Boulevard, from Mulholland Drive south to Imperial Highway--the council, she said, confronts two major types of discrimination: Denial of access to blacks and victimization of Latinos by landlords. (By contrast, the council receives few complaints involving discrimination against Asians.)

'Ghettos' Being Created

In Mar Vista and Venice, Rosloff said, "We are seeing ghettos created. Owners seem to have decided that it's time to rent their property to people who are desperate for housing." Tenants' rents may be raised four times a year, she said, in the belief that Latino tenants "don't know about rent control." If the tenants complain about lack of maintenance, or insist on return of a cleaning deposit, she said, they often are answered with a threat to call immigration authorities. The council has procured $42,000 in relocation money for tenants who have been displaced so rents could be raised higher.

The Westside attracts Latinos whose jobs are there, generally low-paying jobs in car washes and service industries or as domestics, and who find on the Westside helpful parishes and numerous resources. But it also attracts developers who are buying up small houses and milking the properties "while waiting for the Marina to move farther north," as Rosloff put it.

Discrimination against blacks is frequently overt, Rosloff said, citing the case of a man who was accused by his apartment manager of being a "drug user" when he asked that his refrigerator be repaired, and the case of a black woman who was subjected to an extensive "credit check" while the condo she had reserved was offered to two prospective buyers, both white.

Rosloff said the most recent study available, done nationwide by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1978, found that blacks, for example, were discriminated against 75% of the time in attempts to rent an apartment and more than 60% of the time when seeking a house to buy. "I think it's just as relevant today," she said.

"That is so far-fetched," responded Layne Grasshoff, president of Layne Grasshoff and Associates and Western division chairman, Los Angeles Board of Realtors. "We live by a very strict code of ethics. We can be sued for parting our hair on the wrong side."

She acknowledged that often "sellers want to screen the color (of potential buyers). We just tell them we are color blind." State law prohibits discrimination, she noted, and "we who belong to the board (all companies with the word realtor after the name) do not break the law." Further, she said, from a dollars and cents standpoint, "Why should we cut off our noses? It's a question of money. And who cares (about color)?"

The bottom line, Grasshoff said, is money. The financial statement of the buyer is what interests most sellers, she said, and she does not think property values are affected when a neighborhood becomes racially mixed. Although some owners of small rental buildings might at first be "feeling their oats," Grasshoff said, in the long run "the only discrimination is the color green. To me, it's can they afford it, and will they be happy there? The rest will take care of itself."

But in Rosloff's view, minorities are "still encouraged to live with their own kind." She points to advertisements for housing developments that show a black couple at home in Compton, a Latino couple in Pico Rivera, an Asian couple in Montebello. "A step back," said Rosloff, "a real step back." She added, "A lot of developers get their money through public funds and I'm concerned about that." (The council has, in fact, filed a complaint about the advertising practice with the state Department of Fair Housing.)

In what she views as a case of the haves hoping to keep out the have-nots, Rosloff is seeing one irony that is "a problem unique to West L.A.," hostility toward wealthy Iranians who are settling there (the Westside has the majority of the area's estimated Iranian population of about 500,000). Although the Iranians do not file complaints, she said, she knows of incidents of vandalism of their property.

Rosloff, who considers herself "a burr," smiled and said, "We're so funny. People who are poor, we don't like them. People with money, we don't like them. It's the stranger among us."

Much Less Prevalent

Discrimination against adults with children is much less prevalent since passage in 1982 of a state law prohibiting it, Rosloff said, not hesitating to add that it was a good thing--"We'd started selecting people out until some of the schools in Santa Monica were empty." There are occasional complainants, such as a woman with a 5-year-old son who was told approval of her application for an apartment would take 40 days; the council's checkers were told that for them the wait would be only three days.

Basically, Rosloff said, "Parents do not want to live where they feel it will not work out. They don't want to worry every time their kid cries."

But racial and ethnic discrimination do not abate, despite state and federal laws that together make it illegal for landlords or their representatives to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, national origin, color, sex, marital status or physical handicap.

In a typical quarter, from October through December of last year, the council handled 32 complaints based on national origin, 21 based on race and 13 involving renters with children.

Twenty years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, Rosloff said, attitudes have changed very little. And she reasons that she is seeing only the tip of the iceberg. "How many of us," she asked, "want to go through the hassle (of complaining)?"

E. Lamont Cosby was the catalyst for a lawsuit filed in July, 1983, by the Westside council against the owners and managers of an apartment building on Sawtelle Boulevard in West Los Angeles, charging racial discrimination. The case was settled out of court last December with the defendants denying guilt but agreeing to an $80,000 settlement.

In a recent interview, Cosby, one of seven plaintiffs in the suit, expressed his anger that his share of the award was only about $4,300. "Basically, I've been used to further the cause. I'm not real happy about the whole thing," he said.

Cosby said that, although "it's not like I got into it to make money," he was "furious" when he learned that the attorney, Eleanor Rehm White of Santa Monica, received 40% of the $80,000, plus costs. (Of the remainder, 50% went to the council and the rest was divided among seven plaintiffs.)

Larger Motive

"I was Johnny on the spot, always out there as the lead plaintiff," he said, "but I was one of the minor beneficiaries." Still, he said, he went along because he "didn't want to appear not to be a team player" and because his larger motive was "to see if I could have those guys hung right out in front of their complex." And he continues to support the work of the council--"It was very comforting to me to know there was at least some place to go."

(Rosloff defended the payment to Rehm, explaining that Rehm is a solo practitioner who devoted considerable time to this case over three years. To expect such services on a pro bono basis is not realistic, Rosloff said, adding, "The proof is in the pudding.")

The case began in December, 1982, when Cosby, a 35-year-old precision tools salesman, began thinking about relocating. Perhaps, he had reasoned, he could find something both more reasonable and more welcoming to his young daughter, who lived with her mother but frequently visited. (His Glendon Avenue apartment, historically an "adults only" complex, prohibits children in the pool area.)

Walking to a nearby tennis court one day, Cosby noticed the sign in front of 3448 Sawtelle--apartment with loft available. "I rang the doorbell and got no response," he recalled. Again and again, he stopped and rang the bell--"every day, 30 times in all, minimum, and nobody ever answered. I became determined. I thought, 'This must be a pretty good complex.' "

Then one day, getting no response to his rings but noticing a side gate open, Cosby approached a couple who were moving their belongings out, introduced himself and his mission and asked, "When is your manager in?"

"He's in," the woman replied. "I saw him standing on that porch looking at you ring that doorbell not five minutes ago." Cosby said he looked up and saw the manager "kind of peeking out from his porch. I saw him look out that door--and I took off. I was just furious."

'Checkers' Dispatched

Cosby contacted the Westside Fair Housing Council. Following through, the council sent its "checkers," some white and some minorities, to apply as renters and, it was subsequently stated in its lawsuit, the minority checkers were dealt with differently and were quoted higher rents and/or subjected to extraordinary credit checks and other harassment.

All allegations were denied by the defendants, Jan and Ralph Albrecht of Sacramento, owners of the 22-unit building; resident manager James Johnston, and two companies owned by the Albrechts, the C & H Group Inc. and Reliable Enterprises Inc. But, in addition to the cash settlement, the defendants agreed to place equal opportunity logos at the building, to include a fair housing logo on all advertising and listings and to distribute copies of the Fair Housing Council's booklet, "Your Housing Rights."

(The attorney for the defendants, Roger Diamond, explained at the time that there were already two black residents in the building and the manager "was of the mistaken belief that he could maintain racial balance in the apartment building. Unfortunately, he apparently didn't realize that you can't refuse to rent to a black person even in the interest of maintaining racial balance, which apparently was a mistake on his part.")

The way for the suit was paved by a 1982 Supreme Court decision that held that a fair housing "tester" who receives false information about the availability of a house or apartment can sue for violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, even if he never intended to go through with the purchase or rental.

$300,000 in Settlements

The $80,000 brings to $300,000 the total in awards and settlements won by the Westside Council since 1970. (The council was created in 1968 through formation of a coalition of existing community organizations that had been working to support equal opportunity in housing. Until July, 1976, it relied solely on donations and fund-raising activities. Today it has an annual budget of $120,000, the bulk of it from the City of Los Angeles through its community development block grant program.)

Despite the judgment, Cosby decided not to rent the apartment. He said he is satisfied just to have "made an example of these people" and he "was not interested in subjecting my daughter and myself to (their) attitude."

After 10 years in Los Angeles, Cosby said, he has concluded that "the (civil rights) laws can't control what a person thinks. In Southern California you don't think this kind of racism exists because Southern California has a reputation of being discriminatory only because of money. But it is real, it is real. I can't describe my rage."

"Most people don't have real property," said Marvin Adelson, chairman of the 28-member volunteer board of directors of the Westside council, "but we all have civil liberties and those property rights need to be respected."

Adelson, a professor in the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning at UCLA, added: "In our society we accept economic barriers but we have legislated against other barriers. If people can afford to live where they want to, there should be no barriers."

Adelson is no Pollyanna, readily acknowledging, "Fair housing is not going to do away with a society of classes," but insisting that within that reality "we ought to worry about freedom and justice." And the bottom line, Adelson said, is, "We all know the good schools tend to be in the good neighborhoods. I think education is a key dimension in social development. If people don't have access to equal housing, they don't have access to equal schools and that is, in the long run, very destructive."

Adelson's involvement with the council began about four years ago when he started tagging along to meetings with his wife, Yolande, a labor arbitrator and former civil rights attorney who also serves on the board. "Within the fair housing movement," he said, "there are those who want to stop discrimination. There are others who want to actively pursue integration. Those are not the same thing."

A Healthier Society

Adelson views fair housing as a tool for breaking down cultural barriers and creating a healthier society in which people of all ages and races, people with and without children, live together in communities. "It seems to me," he said, "to have a healthy mix, an adequate amount of heterogeneity, is part of the vitality of our society. It's only when you start to share a life (that) you can stop fearing people for what they don't deserve to be feared for, stop resenting them for what they don't deserve to be resented for."

Were it not for discrimination, he said, many more minorities would be living on the Westside. He pointed out, "There are parts of the city, like Ladera Heights--these people could just as easily afford to live farther west. They're physicians, engineers, university faculty members, business executives, bankers. Some of them probably just don't want the hassle."

He says he is alarmed by the "tenacity" of discrimination and readily acknowledges that a reversal of the gains made in the '60s, as evidenced by the recent incidents in Philadelphia, is "what we're all afraid of."

He said, "The issue of families with children is a little different." The council has recently been asked by the Consumers Union to cooperate in developing a program in support of families with children seeking fair housing. The Wolfson decision, in 1982, made it illegal to discriminate in California against such families.

Is the Westside council merely putting out brush fires, responding to complaints? "We're at the breaking point between the past and the future," Adelson said. "Every time you see (discrimination) you have to go after it" in the interests of "trying to promote a society in which this (fair housing) law is abided by as well as other laws."

Last year, Adelson said, the Westside council had 5,000 complaint calls, the "vast majority" of them relating to discrimination. The numbers, he noted, don't include "people who've lived so much with this stuff they've just given up." The council always seeks conciliations; lawsuits are the last resort.

Discussing the council's difficulties in attracting donations, he said, "This is a cause that lacks sex appeal. (Donors would) rather be involved in curing cancer or stopping nuclear wear or famine in Africa. But this is terribly vital. It's pervasive. It has to do with the soul of the community."

Robson Dufau, 23, scans the literature left at his doorstep--propaganda about "deporting all non-whites immediately to reservations or Third World countries to clean up America," stabs at the NAACP, followed by ugly allusions. And Dufau gets "real, real mad."

When the first piece came, he showed it to all the neighbors and, he said, "Everybody said nothing like this had ever happened" on this street of $100,000-plus homes. They promised to take the matter up with the Neighborhood Watch, but in the end, Dufau said, "Our only real support was our neighbor next door. He's Hispanic and she's Jewish."

There are also Filipinos across the street. "I'm the only black," Tori said, "but it's a mixed block. It's not like I'm breaking the color barrier."

The Dufaus live in fear. She worries about coming home with the children--5-year-old David, her son by an earlier marriage, and 11-month-old Robson Jr.--and finding someone waiting for her. Robson, a transportation aide at Kaiser Permanente Hospital, has dropped out of electrician's school "because Tori was scared to be here by herself" at night.

The Westside Fair Housing Council intervened in January, after a telephone call from Tori, who'd gone through the telephone directory and "called anybody who looked like they'd want to know." The council got in touch with the U.S. Department of Justice, which said it planned to alert the FBI in Los Angeles, and also contacted the county Human Relations Commission and Councilwoman Pat Russell's office. The latter call resulted in police patrols on the Dufaus' street.

The Dufau case puzzles Rosloff. She said: "It's the very first time in my experience that I have met this. Once people move in, neighbors tend to look at them as people and not as stereotypes. There just seems to be a different mood abroad in the land. That worries me."

The Dufaus have been married for a year and eight months and this is their first experience with racial discrimination. It's hard for Tori to deal with a hidden enemy that deals in hatred, that tosses eggs at her house. She said: "It's not like I ran over their daisies on my way out of the driveway. It's something I have no control over." Robson added: "We don't play loud music. I take care of the garden. We aren't tearing up the neighborhood."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World