Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Housing Discrimination Study Flawed, Says Panel

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Housing Discrimination Study Flawed, Says Panel

Article excerpt

SARASOTA: Board likens undercover investigation to child's science project

SARASOTA

Time after time, similar scenes of housing discrimination have played out across Sarasota.

A white person seeking an apartment is told one thing. A black person is told something else.

Undercover investigations by a fair housing agency hired by the city and county have repeatedly documented disparities.

But this week, an all-white volunteer city board said it did not believe the reports because of what it called flaws in the investigations.

The studies were conducted in 2011 and 2014 by the Fair Housing Continuum, a private nonprofit agency based in Brevard County. The agency said it found racial discrimination in every apartment complex tested in the city.

When presented with these reports last year, city commissioners expressed dismay and talked about getting tough on discrimination. The City Commission passed the reports on to the city's Human Relations Board, which is tasked with finding and prohibiting discrimination.

But the Human Relations Board expressed skepticism when it was given those reports in September. The board focused on examining the methods of the investigation.

More than six months later, the board has not finished its report but gave city commissioners some preliminary findings on Monday. Human Relations Board chairwoman Kimberly Walker said the Housing Continuum's findings fell short of proving racial discrimination.

The board might suggest more tests, and might ask to approve the methods of investigation ahead of time.

"What we're talking about is just a bogus report?" City Commissioner Stan Zimmerman asked.

"I certainly may agree with you," Walker said.

Other commissioners were not convinced that the reports were bogus. Mayor Willie Shaw pointed to the city's long history of segregation and the "repeat offenders" who appeared in both the 2011 and 2014 reports.

The Housing Continuum stood by its investigations, saying the Human Relations Board was only defensive about the negative test results and trying to poke holes in the report.

Vice Mayor Susan Chapman also said she was hesitant to dismiss the reports because she had been involved in fair housing investigations while studying social work. Nobody comes out in public, Chapman said, and announces, "I don't rent to black people."

"It was peeling the onion," Chapman said, over repeated investigations. "And then the talk started flowing."

Questioning results

The Human Relations Board was first given the results of the 2014 Housing Continuum investigation on Sept. 23. The discrimination it found would violate the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

The report said two undercover testers working for the agency, one white and one black, visited 20 apartment complexes in the county. Each followed a script with matching housing needs and qualifications. Of 14 sites tested in the county, 70 percent showed discrimination.

All six of those tested in the city showed discrimination. The Housing Continuum said it delivered the test results, along with a letter of explanation, to each apartment complex.

Expressing alarm, the Human Relations Board discussed other possible explanations. Walker wondered whether differences in the testers' attitude, body language, word choice or grammar could have influenced how leasing agents responded to them. She wondered "whether someone was doing something offensive, like picking their nose," and compared the Housing Continuum report unfavorably with a "third-grade science experiment."

Months later, in a February meeting, city staff asked the board to produce some results. But some board members were not clear on the facts of the case or had not read the most recent reports. One member said she wished the board had never been asked to look into the matter in the first place.

Calls to members of the housing board by the Herald-Tribune were not returned this week. …

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