A landlord takes Lakewood to court for racism

Due to past history ... is how the narrative begins in the police report that documents a 2007 visit to the Hidden Village Apartments on Clifton Boulevard, near Lakewood's eastern border with Cleveland.

Apart from that nod to the past, the report offers little clue as to why officials from Lakewood's building, fire, and health departments all showed up at once, or why three cops accompanied them. It notes that they went door to door, asking for permission to enter each apartment, and that residents were cooperative.

But that visit — and questions about what prompted it — form the heart of a federal lawsuit in which Hidden Village landlords Gary Lieberman and Michael Priore charge the City of Lakewood with violating the Fair Housing Law, which prohibits making housing sale, rental, or financing decisions based on race.

Since 2006, the complex has been the host site for Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries' Youth Re-Entry Program, which helps teens and young adults make the transition out of foster care and into the real world. According to Lieberman and Priore, 40 percent of Hidden Village's 97 apartments were vacant before the program moved in. As it happens, all of the Re-Entry Program's clients are black. According to the suit, those 25 people represent "likely the largest concentration of African Americans in the city."

Initially filed in December 2008, the case was withdrawn the following summer and re-filed earlier this year, about a month after the landlords were summoned to appear in city court over code violations. Their federal suit names the city, former mayor Thomas George, building commissioner Charles Barrett, housing inspector Edward Fitzgerald (whom the case mistakenly identifies as the current mayor and county executive candidate, who has the same name), fire chief Lawrence Mroz, and police chief Timothy Malley.

It takes no small measure of chutzpa to charge that a mayor, police chief, fire chief, and city building and health departments were so motivated by black people moving into their mostly white neighborhood that they collaborated in a raid designed to intimidate them. But that's the claim made by Lieberman and Priore, who bought the property in 2001 and own several others in Lakewood and around the region.

Plaintiffs' lawyers in the case — among them CNN legal pundit Avery Friedman, a noted civil rights crusader — are attempting to establish a pattern of racism stemming from housing discrimination cases in Lakewood's past. But the cases they cite were between tenants and landlords, not city officials.

Lawyer Richard C. Haber questions why Lakewood, which borders mostly black Cleveland on two sides, remains overwhelmingly white. Never mind that the Cleveland neighborhoods that border Lakewood — West Park and Cudell — are mostly white too.

The lawyers for Lieberman and Priore did not respond to requests to interview their clients.

"You've got to look at who is suing and who is not suing," says Lakewood Police Sergeant Ed Favre, who wrote the report on the 2007 incident and was one of the three officers who took part.

Among those not suing are the would-be victims of the alleged raid — the 25 black tenants assigned there by Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, which also has nothing to do with the suit.

Megan Billow, a spokesperson for the agency, declined comment on behalf of the program's administrators, but said, "We have good working relationships with our landlord and the current City of Lakewood and the police department."

Indeed, the police report describes an uneventful visit, with representatives of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries present and cooperative: The officials knocked on all apartment doors, moved on if nobody answered, and asked permission to enter when someone did answer. Tenants were cooperative. Inspectors found some code violations, but nothing criminal.

Hidden Village's version of events unfolds very differently. "On May 22, 2007, without probable cause, ten white police, fire officials, building department officials, and health department officials appeared unannounced at Hidden Village Apartments without warrants, including a canine unit in a van, to conduct a suite-to-suite raid in order to inspect apartments occupied by African American ... tenants," the suit reads. It alleges that the search was conducted only on the suites of black tenants — and that because of the tenants' race, police assumed they would find weapons or drugs. The whole episode is described as a "government-sponsored reign of terror motivated by race."

It's unclear how the reign of terror successfully identified only the suites of black residents, however.

"Obviously they were watching what was going on," says Friedman. "I think they must have tracked occupancy permits. I think they tracked when renovations were being done. This is the most responsible, best-known housing provider in Lakewood. It's not a situation where you have a slumlord letting his building run down."

But the "past history" referred to in the police report plays out in detail in the building department's file on Hidden Village. Repeatedly since at least 2001, the owners were cited for code violations ranging from landscape maintenance to interior fixtures, heating and air conditioning problems, falling plaster, a leaky roof, and repairs that dragged on for months until the city finally summoned the owners to court. A Lakewood building inspector says the arrival of all those departments at once may have seemed heavy-handed, but it was really about efficiency in dealing with what had for years been a problematic property.

According to Favre, inspections coordinated between city departments happen occasionally; indeed, a separate report shows the same delegation visited an unrelated complex the same day. And police attention is nothing new in eastern Lakewood: A walk around the block that surrounds Hidden Village reveals a raw hodgepodge of attitudes toward the place.

"The halfway house?" says a guy out washing his car, casting his gaze toward Hidden Village to be sure he's talking about the right building. "I call it the ghetto of Lakewood."

"It's not just that building," says a woman walking home from the bus after work. "The police are here a lot. It's the whole neighborhood."

A white male resident of Hidden Village, meanwhile, calls it "an upscale location" and describes it as "peaceful."

There is universal agreement on at least one point: If the police devote an inordinate amount of attention to the area, it has nothing to do with a couple dozen kids from Hidden Village being black.

"No, it's because they're being loud and obnoxious," says one woman who lives up the street.

One day recently, Howard Littlepage, a black neighbor whose backyard adjoins Hidden Village, was sitting on his front porch with his foot in a cast, watching the afternoon go by. He thinks the police treat everybody the same.

"If you're not doing anything," he says, "they won't bother you."

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