CONCORD -- The state and a group of tenants are suing the owners of the Huntington Arms Apartments for allegedly discriminating against children with families.

According to the lawsuit, the former apartment manager scolded children who played outside and told tenants the owners planned to evict larger families.

Catalina Martinez, who lived at the 32-unit Detroit Avenue building for two years, said the manager once berated her 8-year-old daughter for drawing on the pavement with washable chalk.

"The manager yelled at her and asked her why she did it. She told her when adults do something like that, they take them to jail," she said in Spanish.

"My daughter got scared. She didn't want to go out to play anymore. I didn't want to let her go play," added Martinez, who moved more than a year ago.

In a lawsuit filed in Contra Costa Superior Court, the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleges the property owners' treatment of families with children violated state and federal fair housing laws. The state filed the lawsuit after a mandatory mediation last month with the defendants was unsuccessful.

Tenants Together, a statewide renters' rights organization, has filed a joint lawsuit against the landlords on behalf of four families. Both lawsuits seek monetary damages and an end to all discriminatory rules and practices.

Building owner Peter Carlson, a college professor who lives in Virginia, did not return a call seeking comment. Efforts to reach co-defendants Joan Bull and Teresa Ratcliff were unsuccessful.

The lawsuit alleges that over several months, Ratcliff -- the former apartment building manager -- scolded children when they played in the courtyard, told tenants kids couldn't play in front of apartments because adults were sleeping and raised the specter of evicting larger families.

In March 2012, according to the suit, Ratcliff sent tenants a written notice that children weren't allowed to ride bikes, skate or play ball in the courtyard and were barred from the laundry room without parental supervision. The missive also encouraged parents to "talk to your children about climbing stairs in a normal manner."

The children were young and playing at appropriate times of day, not teenagers carousing late at night, according to Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director for Tenants Together.

"You can't treat children differently; you can't have rules that are different for children and for adults," she said. "If you're saying children can't play outside, then you're discriminating against families because you have special rules."

This is the second lawsuit Tenants Together has filed against owners of a Concord apartment building in the past three months. The first one claimed the landlords had failed to rid their building of bedbugs.

The Department of Fair Employment and Housing pursues legal action against property owners when an investigation uncovers "sufficient evidence of housing discrimination," department spokeswoman Annmarie Billotti wrote in an email. The most common violations are against families with children and persons with disabilities, she wrote.

Conditions at the apartment building have improved since a new manager started in January, according to Simon-Weisberg. But tenants are still afraid and don't let their children play outside much because the owners never acknowledged the previous manager's behavior, she added.

Contact Lisa P. White at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white. Contact Jennifer Modenessi at 925-943-8378. Follow her at Twitter.com/JModenessi.