Inside the government’s racial bias case against Donald Trump’s company, and how he fought iBy
When a black woman asked to rent an apartment in a Brooklyn complex managed by Donald Trump’s real estate company, she said she was told that nothing was available. A short time later, a white woman who made the same request was invited to choose between two available apartments.
The two would-be renters on that July 1972 day were actually undercover “testers” for a government-sanctioned investigation to determine whether Trump Management Inc. discriminated against minorities seeking housing at properties across Brooklyn and Queens.
Federal investigators also gathered evidence. Trump employees had secretly marked the applications of minorities with codes, such as “No. 9” and “C” for “colored,” according to government interview accounts filed in federal court. The employees allegedly directed blacks and Puerto Ricans away from buildings with mostly white tenants, and steered them toward properties that had many minorities, the government filings alleged.
In October 1973, the Justice Department filed a civil rights case that accused the Trump firm, whose complexes contained 14,000 apartments, of violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
The case, one of the biggest federal housing discrimination suits to be brought during that time, put a spotlight on the family empire led by its 27-year-old president, Donald Trump, and his father, Fred Trump, the chairman, who had begun building houses and apartments in the 1930s. The younger Trump demonstrated the brash, combative style that would make him famous, holding forth at a news conference in a Manhattan hotel to decry the government’s arguments as “such outrageous lies.” He would also say that the company wanted to avoid renting apartments to welfare recipients of any color but never discriminated based on race.
The Trumps retained Roy Cohn, a defense attorney who two decades earlier had been a top aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) during his infamous effort to root out communists in government. Cohn portrayed the Trumps as the victims and counter-sued the government, demanding it pay them $100 million for falsely accusing them of discrimination.
Trump declined to be interviewed. His attorney, Alan Garten, said via email that there was “absolutely no merit to the allegations.”
“This suit was brought as part of a nationwide inquiry against a number of companies, and the matter was ultimately settled without any finding of liability and without any admission of wrongdoing whatsoever,” Garten said.
Targeting the Trumps
Donald Trump’s ascent in his family’s business, after his 1968 graduation from business school, came as allegations of race discrimination were mounting against landlords across New York City. Housing bias had become a major policy issue in Congress.
Many whites were relocating to the suburbs, and minorities often moved in to rent or buy properties. Concern about the issue peaked following race riots that broke out across the country after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Amid growing evidence that landlords were refusing to rent to minorities, Congress acted one week after the King assassination by passing the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which banned such discrimination.
The Trumps’ company had encountered allegations of discrimination before Donald Trump arrived. On at least seven occasions, people seeking apartments had filed complaints about alleged “discriminatory practices” with the New York City Commission on Human Rights.
The company resolved the complaints individually by offering apartments to each minority applicant, but critics in New York said the patterns of bias continued.
Organizations such as the Urban League began to send testers to Trump properties.
In the July 1972 test at Shorehaven Apartments in Brooklyn, the same superintendent who had rejected the black woman told the white woman who came later that she could “immediately rent either one of two available apartments,” according to testimony.
The tests played out across Queens and Brooklyn and revealed a pattern, the housing activists said in court filings. White testers were encouraged to rent at certain Trump buildings, while the black testers were discouraged, denied or steered to apartment complexes that had more racial minorities, according to the testimony.
After local activists realized the scope of their findings, they alerted the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which was looking for housing cases to pursue.
Two former Trump employees, a husband and wife who rented properties, were quoted in court documents as saying they were told that the company wanted to rent only to “Jews and Executives” and “discouraged rental to blacks.” The couple told the government’s lawyers that they were advised that “a racial code was in effect, blacks being referred to as ‘No. 9.’ ”
Other rental agents employed by the Trumps told the FBI that only 1 percent of tenants at the Trump-run Ocean Terrace Apartments were black, and that there were no black tenants at Lincoln Shore Apartments. Both were on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. However, minorities were steered to a different complex on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, Patio Gardens, which was 40 percent black, the government said.