The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Discrimination, Segregation Still Prevalent in Housing

by Michelle Chen

Through overt prejudice and subtle bias, landlords and local housing policymakers take advantage of weak federal oversight to perpetuate the legacy of segregated neighborhoods, fair housing advocates say.

June 22, 2005 – On her way out of the courtroom, just after an eviction order against her had been overturned, Eboni SternJohn was relieved, but still troubled. The young graduate student and her husband, Julius, approached the representative of her building’s property management company, seeking an explanation. Eboni later recalled that the representative rebuffed them, turned away, and muttered that he was "tired of dealing with niggers."

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The shock, she remarked in an interview, was only temporary, as the remark merely confirmed the couple’s growing suspicions. She recalled, since taking over their multiethnic apartment building in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the new landlord had not only ignored the repeated requests for maintenance repairs from minority tenants, but had also issued a slew of eviction notices aimed at residents of color.

The courtroom incident, Eboni told The NewStandard, removed any remaining doubt that "we were in for a fight, and it was definitely based on race."

In the coming weeks, the SternJohns discovered they were up against more than they had anticipated. Days after they complained formally to the property manager about the racial epithet, said Eboni, the couple was ordered to move out, for maintenance purposes. Later on, two men showed up one night, tried to force their way into the apartment, and shoved a second eviction notice at Eboni, then pregnant.

Attesting to the resilience of segregation’s legacy, housing discrimination roils quietly in American communities, pushing people out of homes and shuttering opportunities for decent shelter.

The couple knew they had to move, but found their housing search marred by a bad rental reference, which the SternJohns saw as retaliation. "He had threatened that he would have us living on the streets," Eboni said of her landlord.

Attesting to the resilience of segregation’s legacy, housing discrimination roils quietly in American communities, pushing people out of homes and shuttering opportunities for decent shelter. Beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1968, federal, state and local fair housing laws have emerged to bar discrimination based on race, national origin, gender, disability status and other categories. But as government protections and mandates for the advancement of equal opportunity have evolved, so has the complexity of discriminatory practices.

Discrimination can take the form of a subtle slight -- a prospective renter being turned down over the phone for speaking with the wrong accent, or a lack of ramps for wheelchair access.

Or a landlord could be outright abusive, as in a recently settled case of a housing manager in North Carolina who did not allow black children to play in certain parts of the property to avoid making the area "look bad."

Discriminatory patterns can also be more diffuse, betrayed by an uneven social landscape of wealthy and destitute neighborhoods grafted over patches of black, white and brown.

Mary Scott Knoll, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of San Diego, an education and advocacy group, commented that over time, "discrimination has gone away from its traditional approaches," and in some aspects, now resonates even more widely.

Discriminatory patterns can also be more diffuse, betrayed by an uneven social landscape of wealthy and destitute neighborhoods grafted over patches of black, white and brown.

Despite a greater presence of people of color at all income levels, Knoll said, middle-class suburbia remains off limits to many. "Housing discrimination," she said, "is no respecter of groups or economic factors."

Investigating the Obvious

In 2004, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) annual fair housing report, the agency and its state and local "partner" offices fielded 9,187 complaints of housing discrimination -- a rise of 13 percent from 2003, with a marked increase of over 30 percent in national origin discrimination claims filed by Hispanics.

The advocacy network National Fair Housing Alliance reported more than 27,000 total discrimination complaints nationwide in 2004, more than two-thirds of them processed by private fair housing groups. Discrimination against people of color and people with disabilities were the most common, accounting for 25 and 30 percent of complaints, respectively, followed by discrimination based on national origin and family size and composition.

More disturbing to activists is the number of discrimination cases that never surface. According to a statistical analysis by academic researchers commissioned by the National Fair Housing Alliance, an estimated 3.7 million cases of housing discrimination occur annually.

"Instances of discrimination tend not to announce themselves," said Craig Gurian, executive director of the civil rights group Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York.

Knoll attributes underreporting in part to "an un- or undereducated housing consumer group" that is unaware of certain legal protections.

The prevalence of discrimination represents the gap between the letter of the law and the ease with which individuals, businesses and governments avoid fair housing regulations.

Yet Gurian noted that constant, widespread discrimination in housing also has a more insidious chilling effect: "people understanding where they’re not supposed to go," and instead resigning themselves to the seeming "market inevitability" of segregation.

Results of HUD-administered surveys indicate that on average, respondents showed moderate awareness of fair housing protections, but even among better-informed respondents an unwillingness to act upon the law was evident. While 14 percent of respondents reported experiencing "some form of housing discrimination at one point or another," the vast majority of them decided not to challenge the discrimination, often because they felt "the effort was not worthwhile."

For the fair housing advocacy community, the prevalence of discrimination represents the gap between the letter of the law and the ease with which individuals, businesses and governments avoid fair housing regulations.

Studies involving "testers," undercover agents sent into the housing market to pose as housing consumers, exhibit how discrimination plays out in everyday interactions. In 2000, government-sponsored studies found that among testers for urban apartment rentals, blacks and Hispanics were in many cases shown fewer properties than white counterparts, and some apartments were available for rent to everyone except minority applicants. The investigations revealed that overall, black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American testers received "consistent adverse treatment" at rates ranging from 22 to 29 percent. Researchers observed comparable patterns in home buying and financing procedures.

To housing rights activists, however, undercover investigations just reaffirm signs of discrimination in plain view, amid the ghettoized public housing projects that pervade cities.

One emblem of this de facto segregation, which critics say stems from government policies that lock communities in isolation, is city of Baltimore, Maryland, which is home to nearly nine out of ten low-income blacks in the metropolitan region, as well as to nine in ten of the area’s public housing projects. A federal court ruled earlier this year that HUD has aggravated racial segregation in Baltimore by failing to promote fair subsidized housing for black residents, allowing many to be squeezed into underserved urban areas with little access to affordable homes outside the city.

The tendency for residential segregation in school districts raises additional concerns that the heaviest consequences of separations could fall on the next generation.

"Many who discriminate already know it’s unlawful," reflected Knoll. "They have just found the loopholes in the law or changed their approach to things, to make sure that their objective, which is to determine who lives where, is carried out."

Mapping Segregation

Housing inequality, according to many fair housing activists, throws into sharp relief a host of social problems that emanate from and perpetuate discrimination.

Recent studies on demographic trends suggest that economic decline and segregation work in a grim cycle. The emergence of segregated, poor communities precipitates an overburdened and resource-starved social infrastructure, deteriorating quality of life, and an accelerating exodus of whites to more affluent areas, which in turn drives the abandoned sectors into even deeper poverty.

According to the US Census Bureau, over half the black population and nearly half of the Hispanic population live in the urban center of a broader metropolitan region, compared to only twenty percent of whites. Meanwhile, the black unemployment rate hovers at about twice the rate among non-Hispanic whites, while both black and Hispanic poverty rates are nearly triple the white rate.

The tendency for residential segregation in school districts raises additional concerns that the heaviest consequences of separations could fall on the next generation.

According to the Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, from 1986 to 2000, a growth in informal school segregation has pushed white students apart from their black and Latino peers, decreasing students’ exposure to racial diversity.

A separate study on educational disparities in Boston’s highly segregated school system, where urban schools are 85 percent minority, showed that compared to low-minority, higher-income schools, the city’s high-minority, high-poverty schools had lower percentages of instructors with teacher certification and lower standardized test scores.

"If we don’t have wonderful housing integration or at least equal opportunity in housing," said Knoll, "then we’re never going to get equal opportunity in education, either."

Legal Barriers Heighten Housing Barriers

Fair housing activists say that people who face discriminatory barriers in seeking a secure home may face even greater hurdles trying to negotiate the fair housing enforcement system.

On the duty to uphold fair housing law, said Gurian, "There’s never been a sustained commitment on any level of government."

About a third of over 9,000 complaints documented by HUD in 2004 were resolved before reaching an official hearing, but of approximately 6,000 cases not settled, less than ten percent resulted in an official charge of discrimination.

John Hooks, an attorney with the public interest law group Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that in the fair housing advocacy community, it is common knowledge that HUD "is responding to just a miniscule percentage of [complaints] and responding in a very inadequate way."

In one case Hooks helped litigate, involving the harassment of black tenants in a North Carolina town, the HUD investigation that plaintiffs requested took roughly three years. "Obviously, by that point," he said, "we had already filed a civil case on their behalf."

Hooks noted that in order to reduce the amount of time spent on each case -- one of HUD’s official performance goals -- HUD agents often try to "get rid of the cases, rather than doing an adequate investigation of them." In another recent lawsuit, he recalled, involving a property owner who allegedly refused to repair a black family’s severely dilapidated home, "Our clients were originally urged by the HUD investigator to settle the case for 1,000 bucks and go away." The plaintiffs proceeded with litigation and were later awarded over $60,000.

Hooks said it was "shameful that the HUD investigators don’t thoroughly investigate these cases, don’t investigate them in a timely manner, and try to basically bully the complainants to settle for a lot less."

But Bryan Greene, director of policy for HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, highlighted "significant progress" in HUD’s enforcement efforts: stronger federal-local coordination, better fair housing compliance in local construction and planning procedures, and closing the vast majority of complaint cases within 100 days.

Greene said that HUD’s monitoring of areas that receive federal housing funds revolves around the initiative of state and local officials. In their oversight efforts, he said, non-compliance issues tend to "resolve themselves as we’re doing the compliance review. We’ll identify a problem, and seek voluntary correction of the problem."

But according to critics, the deeper, systemic undercurrents of segregation that HUD steadfastly avoids dwarf the so-called "correctable" offenses.

For example, though federal law requires that HUD promote fair housing in communities that receive federal funding streams, such as the Community Development Block Grant program, Knoll argued that local administrations routinely under-fund grassroots organizations that promote fair housing principles. "HUD has not promulgated regulations that back up its mandate to local jurisdictions to make sure that they offer fair housing services at the local level," she said.

As director of enforcement at the Office of Fair Housing during the Clinton administration, Sara Pratt watched segregation bleed into communities across the country, and left her government post in 1999, determined to do more than just watch.

Now, as a policy advocate in private practice, Pratt contends that HUD’s approach to enforcement falls short on two priorities: individual discrimination complaints, which currently consume much of the agency’s sparse resources, and the frequently overlooked, "more systemic kind of discrimination that … presents a barrier, in a sort of more global way, to home ownership and opportunities for housing."

Reductions in staff and operating budgets, combined with pressures to close investigations quickly, have downsized the fair housing enforcement system, she said. HUD’s 2006 budget proposal estimated the office would operate on a staff of 625 "full-time equivalents" -- compared to a staffing level of about 750 during the 1990s.

HUD reported to Congress that by the end of 2005, investigators will have conducted 80 compliance reviews for disability accommodations for the entire country, down from 113 in 2004, and 64 reviews for compliance with anti-discrimination laws, down from 93 last year. At the same time, the number of housing authorities receiving technical assistance or compliance monitoring has fallen from 66 in 2004 to an estimated 30 this year.

This year’s House appropriations bill would cut fair housing enforcement funding for state and local government agencies as well as for private groups. The allocation for private enforcement would drop from $20 million to $16 million, or about a third of what Pratt estimates that the program needs in order to effectively serve communities.

Resource gaps on the grassroots level, said Pratt, not only hinder local enforcement work but indirectly prop up the superstructure of discrimination. "The complainant needs their individual remedy… because they’ve got to go on with their life," she explained. "But there’s still discrimination sitting there, and it’s going to be [unaddressed] if they don’t do something broader than that individual investigation."

Discrimination Victims Bear Burden of Proof

What critics view as a sluggish housing law bureaucracy has rendered the judicial system the default mode for redressing discrimination.

But the courts have at times proven similarly unreliable for community groups and civil rights lawyers.

Legal roadblocks have challenged advocacy groups in Huntington, New York seeking to remedy historical discrimination patterns. In 2002, community members called for a court injunction against housing development plans in mostly white areas, alleging that the local government, by constructing new housing that was either unaffordable to minority families or restricted to the elderly, was effectively preventing racial integration. The district court and the court of appeals ruled that the community’s claims of discrimination were not strong enough to "show irreparable injury" or to merit the halting of development that was already underway.

"It's very hard, in this day and age, to prove discrimination," said civil rights attorney Justin Cummins, who represented the SternJohns in their federal lawsuit. "The courts are not always very sympathetic toward civil rights plaintiffs."

The SternJohns’ legal battle began when their landlord allegedly forced them from their home in 1999, and ended last October. Initially, the couple had difficulty finding a lawyer willing to take on their case and instead filed two complaints, one with the state human rights department, eventually upheld, and another with HUD, which never led to a formal charge. Their case finally made it to court in 2002, resulting in a judgment against the landlord that imposed a $1.05 million penalty, removed his managerial authority, and also required that the company adhere to strict anti-discrimination policies, undergo diversity training and "affirmatively market" housing to the local black community.

Following the SternJohns’ private litigation, the Department of Justice initiated its own lawsuit, still pending, which litigates on behalf of other former tenants. In Cummins’s view, the fact that the Justice Department followed when it should have been taking the lead shows that under the current administration, "Vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws, particularly concerning race discrimination, does not seem to be the highest priority."

Some housing rights activists, frustrated with both the regulatory system and the courts, frame the issue of equal opportunity in housing as part of a more fundamental struggle.

According to Pegge McGuire, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, "the only way that there’s going to be better enforcement and better emphasis placed on the fair housing laws … is if there is a much larger scale grassroots movement to demand the civil rights that flow from that whole issue."

Locked in Fear

Fair housing activists caution that as the enforcement system grows weaker, doors slam shut with increasing boldness, and eventually, people stop even trying to open them.

Grassroots service providers say that access to the legal redress is a rare luxury for people whose lives are fraught with instability. McGuire pointed out, for instance, that her group has encountered undocumented immigrants who avoid taking legal action against discrimination because doing so could expose their status -- a fear readily exploited, she said, by landlords who think "they’re the local franchise of Homeland Security."

Among immigrants and low-income people in general, McGuire said, "Sometimes, the other issues that they’re dealing with are so overwhelming in their life -- I mean, they’re just trying to get food on the table or have a roof over their heads -- that the fact that they experience discrimination in pursuing that becomes a lower priority."

Eboni SternJohn understands that her and her husband’s struggle for recourse is a sadly singular one. Although they sought support from other minority tenants early on in their legal challenge, she recalled, "we had problems with getting them even to file a complaint. Some of them just wanted to forget about it."

When those who have suffered housing discrimination are compelled "to just swallow it and move on," she said, the public is more likely to believe "that this kind of thing really doesn’t happen. Because nobody hears about it, because nobody reports it … because nobody wants to be told, ‘We don’t believe you.’"

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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