Magazine article Poverty & Race

"Ground Truths" about Housing Discrimination

Magazine article Poverty & Race

"Ground Truths" about Housing Discrimination

Article excerpt

Since passage of the federal Fair Housing Act 45 years ago, tens of thousands of "testing" investigations have been conducted. Testers are trained to pose as prospective buyers or renters for the purpose of obtaining information about the practices of housing providers (e.g., real estate brokers, landlords, property management companies, etc.). Simulating ordinary consumer behavior often makes it possible to discern whether housing providers are complying with fair housing laws. From these investigations, we have learned a lot about how, where and why housing discrimination occurs. But do these collective insights into discriminatory housing practices inform our current policies, research and enforcement efforts?

In an effort to understand our complex and changing weather patterns, meteorologists conduct sophisticated modeling and analyze atmospheric conditions, historical patterns and satellite renderings. But they also want to know, particularly during turbulent weather, what the situation looks like on the ground. Storm-chasers and storm spotters are sometimes called upon to provide valuable information as a storm is occurring. Getting the "ground truths" about these storms can keep us all safer in the future, as well as when these destructive weather events are occurring. In developing effective strategies to minimize collateral damage and keep people safe in time of tumultuous weather events, the "ground truths" help decisionmakers understand what is happening and plan accordingly.

I currently work for the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC), a regional civil rights organization based in New York City that, among other activities, employs testers to investigate housing discrimination and enforce fair housing laws. After nearly four decades of supervising and participating in thousands of testing investigations across the nation, it is my view that certain "ground truths" about housing discrimination, although commonly known and extensively documented, continue to be ignored or overlooked. This knowledge rarely informs our decision-making when it comes to allocating resources, conducting research or developing effective enforcement strategies for reducing the level of discrimination in our nation's housing markets.

The ground truths about housing discrimination give credence to what should be a fairly self-evident fact, namely that most violators of fair housing laws try to elude detection. That should not strike us as unusual. Bank robbers wear masks to conceal their identity, and criminals wear gloves so as not to leave fingerprints. We all slow down when driving on a highway as soon as we see a police vehicle with radar. We do not want our illegal conduct to be detected. We do not need to stretch our imaginations to understand that housing providers who continue to violate fair housing laws also want to avoid getting caught in the act or having a complaint filed against them. But it does mean that we need to consider the nature of these practices when assessing the situation on the ground.

Violators elude detection by avoiding or minimizing contact with unwanted populations.

How do housing providers do this? Some selectively advertise or refrain from advertising available housing. Most housing providers the FHJC has found engaging in discriminatory practices based on race or national origin do not advertise on craigslist or in online or print media publications that have a more public and general circulation. Some landlords do not advertise at all and resort to word of mouth, referrals from existing tenants, or posting notices or signs that will likely go unnoticed by minority populations. Some selectively advertise in publications targeted to specific audiences based on race, ethnicity or religion.

Another way to avoid or minimize contact with unwanted populations is to profile applicants or selectively respond to inquiries from the public. The use of "linguistic profiling" to screen out people who telephone, by attempting to discern their race or national origin from their voice, is one practice. …

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