THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Adrian Walker

Twice the victim

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / July 11, 2008

When she believed that her landlord had discriminated against her, Indralakshmi Din-Dayal got her day in court. Whether she was on the receiving end of justice is a far more complicated question.

"It was victimizing, disrespectful, and illogical," she says of her experience with the Massachusetts court system. "Nobody listened. I was not protected by even the most rudimentary sense of fairness."

Her lawyer, Mark D. Stern, is even blunter: "I cannot be silent in a society where this kind of thing can happen."

Last month, Din-Dayal lost a three-year battle against her landlord when the Supreme Judicial Court declined, for the second time, to hear her case alleging illegal discrimination and retaliation.

Din-Dayal lived in the same building in Cambridge for 28 years. Originally she was covered by rent control, and later she had a Section 8 certificate. She is an adjunct professor at three local colleges, which means that she makes a modest salary. She has been disabled for about five years.

In 2005, she got a letter from her landlord informing her that her rent was increasing by $300 a month. She complained to the Cambridge Housing Authority, which told her landlord, Moore Real Estate Trust, that her rent could not be raised in midlease. After that, her landlord told her that she would have to leave when her lease was up.

Hers was one of 17 units in a two-building development. According to evidence presented at trial, the seven black and Asian residents paid higher rents than the white residents of the same property. One tenant, renting a three-bedroom unit, paid only $44 a month more than Din-Dayal paid for her one-bedroom unit.

A three-judge panel of district court judges ruled in Din-Dayal's favor in 2006, saying that she should keep her apartment and receive damages. They were overturned by the Massachusetts Appeals Court, which brushed aside the evidence Din-Dayal presented.

By that point, her case had begun to attract attention. Several civic organizations, including the NAACP, eventually filed briefs on behalf of Din-Dayal. Among those who took up her charge was the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at Harvard Law School. Its managing director, David Harris, said yesterday that he believes the ruling by the appeals court was wrong.

"It was one of those cases that seemed to fall through the cracks," Harris said. He believes courts just don't care much about housing discrimination. "Somehow, I think we tend to think that housing discrimination is a thing of the past."

Stern, Din-Dayal's lawyer, says the courts simply did not believe that a person of color could face discrimination in genteel Cambridge. Stern is no loose cannon; he is a veteran discrimination lawyer who has fought these battles for three decades.

"Every person of color paid $500 more than every white person," he fumed. "It's all in the stipulated facts. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this case could be lost."

The Appeals Court decision is less than illuminating. It barely mentions the issue of race in the case and glossed over the disparities in tenants' rents. The SJC, of course, does not comment on why it declines cases. The landlord's attorney did not return a call seeking comment.

By the time the case was decided, Din-Dayal had moved out, worn down by the tension of wondering when her home would be snatched away. She found another apartment in Cambridge, but her new home, she says, is harder to get in and out of, robbing her of independence.

Din-Dayal feels mistreated, and I can understand why. But the courts have had the last word, as always. Ultimately, one tenant's voice didn't seem to count for very much.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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