- The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2001

"Discrimination still exists everyday in America. However, in this case discretion and a closer examination of the facts may be what is needed more," is what Derek McDaniels said of a recent lawsuit filed by two area blacks alleging fair-housing violations against Winchester Homes.

Mr. McDaniels, a black Prince George's County homebuilder, said he is certain that there are opportunities for discrimination to happen in many phases of the home-building and buying process, but is sure that "in this case the plaintiffs have been overly sensitive and may want to slow their roll."

The litigation sprung from a visit Bowie residents Jerry Cromwell and his wife made to Winchester Homes' upscale Ashley community in Anne Arundel County. Mr. Cromwell alleged that they had to wait an hour for a sales agent to show them through a stately $500,000 house in the subdivision. Mr. Cromwell's suit stated that when the agent finally acknowledged them, her first question was: "Are you sure you can afford a house in this community?"

Although unavailable for this report, in his comments in an article in the Washington Post on the incident, Mr. Cromwell said he also learned that a black colleague, Ricardo Ledbetter, had a similar experience at the subdivision. The question Mr. McDaniels and Winchester executives posed about the situation is that "although the incidents happened in late January, Messrs. Cromwell and Ledbetter did not file their suit until August."

"For over two decades we've tried to exhibit that we believe in fair housing rights," says Winchester Homes President Peter Byrnes. Mr. Byrnes has worked for the regional builder since its inception 23 years ago. He said that, "We contacted Mr. Cromwell in early February when we were informed he was dissatisfied with his experience at Ashley. After an intensive review of the situation we didn't discover anything done wrong, but wrote both Mr. Cromwell and Mr. Ledbetter seeking to remedy any problems they experienced. Unfortunately, neither contacted us or took us up on our offer."

"While I don't know the exact waiting time they experienced, I do know at this level of home buying we try to give each client family time and opportunity to view the prospective home unobstructed. With a half-million dollar property you don't do high-pressure selling. She may have been working with another client, while he viewed the time he was allowed to view the property as a slight," said Mr. McDaniels who has built prestigious homes in Prince George's Woodmoore golf course community. "Winchester Homes are well-respected in the industry. Across America minorities are buying homes at an unprecedented rate, and we are definitely in the business of serving the 'move up' buyer," stated Mr. McDaniels, who has been engaged in a technical and financial venture with Winchester Homes since 1996.

"Gauge us by our works and deeds, not mere assertions," said Winchester Homes' Executive Vice President Larry Burrows. The company is a division of Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Co. It has more than 300 employees and says 20 percent are minorities. Over the years, Winchester Homes has provided suburban Maryland and Virginia customers with more than 12,000 homes. Reports show that in 1993 it was the first large builder to earn the National Association of Home Builders' National Quality Award. Mr. Burrows says, "We are proud of our accomplishments in the community. Winchester identifies worthwhile local programs and makes recommendations to the Weyerhaeuser Foundation." Through the foundation the company sponsors a scholarship grant at Prince George's Community College, supportive services at Community Family Life Service Inc. at its 20-unit transition housing project in Southeast D.C. and provision of assistance to Home Builder's Care Foundation Inc.'s men's shelter in Montgomery County.

Mr. McDaniels said current demographics of the Ashley subdivision shows of 25 homes already sold there, five of the homeowners are minorities and four are black. "I am personally aware that the Winchester people were awarded for their diversity efforts by the Maryland National Capital Building Industry Association. They've done better than any of the local governments in making sure that a high percentage of the contractors and sub-contractors on their buildings are minorities. Look at the major building projects that local black-majority governments are engaged in and see if they match up, percentage-wise, with Winchester in the number of roofers, carpenters, brick masons, painters and concrete suppliers."

"We are constructively engaged in this community, because it is our community. We've continued to maintain our headquarters in Prince George's and are happy with the number of high-income African Americans there are in this area," Mr. Byrnes said. "We will continue to live and work here making healthy neighborhoods for all Americans."

William Reed is a syndicated columnist and president of the Business Exchange Network.

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