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Black tenant alleges racism at Utah apartment building

Published August 23, 2014 6:40 pm

Discrimination? • Investigation focuses on hate-filled notes.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A 66-year-old black man has filed a housing-discrimination complaint against the management of a Salt Lake City apartment building for the elderly and disabled.

In the complaint, filed Aug. 15 with the Antidiscrimination Division of the Utah Labor Commission, Jack Coleman asserts that he was the victim of repeated racial and religious discrimination at Friendship Manor, a federally subsidized apartment building at 1320 E. 500 South.

Coleman's complaint further alleges that the management of Friendship Manor broke the law by failing to put an end to the harassment that began when Coleman arrived in April. Coleman finally fled Friendship Manor on Aug. 7 and has been staying at a hotel ever since.

"The federal government is well aware of what is happening at Friendship Manor, and we're looking into the situation," said Charlene Guzman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The state Antidiscrimination Division is trying to mediate before initiating a full-blown investigation.

Meanwhile, Salt Lake City police have launched a criminal probe into a series of threatening, racist notes that were left on Coleman's door for three consecutive days in early August.

The first note appeared Aug. 6 on Coleman's door. "WE Don't Want BLack People Here Get Out," it said.

A new note appeared each day for the next two days. One was cobbled from letters and words cut from a magazine as if it were a ransom note. Along with a misspelled racial slur, it carried a threat: "get out or eLse."

The final note, which arrived after Coleman had moved out, said simply: "You are not welcome at this building.out of here black bastard."

A police officer was at Friendship Manor on Wednesday interviewing tenants.

"It is classified as a hate crime," said police spokesman Detective Cody Lougy, "and we take those very seriously."

Lester A. Perry, Friendship Manor's attorney, said management is cooperating with the police investigation and has vowed to evict the offender, who is likely another tenant.

"If we could find out who the person was who posted those notes," Perry said, "that person would be gone as fast as I could get a court order to remove him."

But the notes left on Coleman's door were only the latest in a string of abuses that Friendship Manor's management knew about for months and, according to Coleman and other Friendship Manor tenants, failed to stop.

"Since the arrival of a new resident, who is Afro-American, it seems we as residents and staff have come face to face with our own prejudices and not-so-positive attitudes towards our fellow human beings," wrote an anonymous tenant in an open letter to Friendship Manor's executive staff. "Unfortunately, there have been incidents of discrimination but no serious consequences applied."

Perry said Friendship Manor did everything it could to resolve the situation and tried to make Coleman, the only black person among 185 tenants, feel welcome.

"Aren't you going to serve me?" • Coleman was born in 1947 in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. In 1965, the year Watts erupted in some of the country's most violent race riots in history, Coleman joined the Army. He turned 19 in Vietnam.

Coleman moved to Salt Lake City last year to be baptized into the LDS Church. He had never been called a "n——-" by a white person until he moved to Utah.

Race-based housing discrimination has yet to be relegated to history's ash bin. A HUD study last year found that "national fair-housing policies must continue to adapt to address the patterns of discrimination and disparity that persist today."

Coleman's experience at Friendship Manor evokes images more akin to the Jim Crow South than present-day Salt Lake City.

He moved into his 13th-floor apartment April 24. That day, Coleman recalled, a man in the elevator called him a "n——-." The next day, in the dining room, a man hooked up to a breathing machine touched Coleman on the arm to get his attention.

"When did they start moving in n——-s like you?" the man said.

Then, on Sunday, May 4, Coleman was returning from church dressed immaculately in a black suit, white shirt and a bow tie. The man with the oxygen machine stopped him again.

"Aren't you going to serve me?" the man said, according to an incident report Coleman filed afterward.

"Of course not," Coleman said. "What makes you think I want to serve you?"

"After all," the man replied, "you look like a butler."

Friendship Manor's management would not address Coleman's complaints unless he filed a formal incident report, so that day Coleman penned his first report to management.

"For someone to point me out because of my color, and he's white, really hurt me," Coleman wrote. "I did not move here to be discriminated against. Please help me."

According to Friendship Manor's lease agreement, the man could have been evicted from the building immediately. But management sought other options, Perry said, adding that most tenants rely on housing subsidies to afford their apartments.

"They can't find any place else like that, so if you throw them out in the street, they're homeless," Perry said. "And so I'm particularly careful about who we evict."

According to Perry, the man met with and apologized to Coleman, and Coleman accepted the apology.

Coleman, however, insists the meeting never happened and the man with the oxygen tank never apologized, though he did stop making racist remarks. Instead, he settled for silently glaring at Coleman from across the dining room.

"I'm crying all the time" • Other tenants did more than glare. The racist slurs continued. Other people made hateful comments about Coleman being a Mormon. But what hurt Coleman the most, he said, was the feeling that management was indifferent, urging him to "suck it up" and "be the better person."

Once, after being called "n——-" in the dining room, Coleman filed an incident report in which he replaced the slur with "people like you."

"I didn't really want to use that word because it kind of offended me," Coleman explained later.

When he met with the Friendship Manor site manager, Sara Struhs, about the incident report, he told her that the man did not say "people like you" but rather said "the n-word." According to Coleman, Struhs said she was unfamiliar with the "n-word" and asked Coleman if it meant "nice." Coleman told her everybody knew what the "n-word" meant.

"To me, it was kind of insulting," Coleman said. "It was almost like she wasn't taking what I was saying seriously. You know, she wanted to make light of the situation."

Struhs would not comment for this story, referring all inquiries to Friendship Manor's attorney.

During another meeting with Struhs, Coleman begged her to put a stop to the harassment and discrimination. He said he was uncomfortable at Friendship Manor and wanted to leave.

"If you don't do something about this," Coleman recalled telling Struhs, "you're going to be hearing from my lawyer."

According to Coleman, Struhs replied, "Oh, yeah, right. Like you have a lawyer."

After that meeting, Coleman rushed upstairs to his apartment and phoned HUD's regional office in Denver. Coleman told the woman who answered that he was being harassed because he was black and Mormon, that management was not helping him, and that he was afraid he would lose his federal housing subsidy if he tried to move.

"I'm really upset," he remembered telling the woman from HUD. "I'm crying all the time."

"A harassment-free living environment" • Coleman remains in limbo. He is living in a hotel and anxious about what might happen once September rolls around and his next rent payment becomes due at Friendship Manor. He is afraid to return, but he will lose his housing voucher if he doesn't pay his rent.

The Antidiscrimination Division has scheduled a mediation for Aug. 29, in which Coleman and Friendship Manor will determine if they can reach a resolution.

"A landlord has the responsibility to make sure that someone is able to live in a harassment-free living environment," said Dan Singer, the division's fair-housing manager, speaking generally because he could not discuss specifics of Coleman's case.

"If the landlord doesn't have any knowledge of the harassment, then there's nothing really that they can do," Singer added. "But if someone's complained and they failed to take steps to stop that, then that's where this harassment standard comes in."

If the mediation fails, the Antidiscrimination Division will launch an investigation that could take up to 100 days. If it finds evidence of wrongdoing, it will file a civil suit on Coleman's behalf.

Coleman's attorney, Barry Toone, said his client's goals are to keep his housing subsidy, get his rent money back from Friendship Manor, and have management acknowledge wrongdoing.

"I told Jack I would try to do this quickly, and the mediation route is quick," Toone said. "But we have enough information from enough other sources that if they force our hand on this, it's going to be a much longer, uglier process."

hstevens@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Harry_Stevens