Housing Discrimination

Racism in the United States can take many forms. Some are as obvious as slurs shouted from cars or hate crimes; others are less apparent. One of racism’s covert guises is housing discrimination. In April the National Fair Housing Alliance released its fair housing trends report, Unequal OpportunityPerpetuating Housing Segregation in America. Based on a multiyear study in 12 metropolitan areas, it found that illegal practices by a number of real estate agents were perpetuating residential segregation, which persists throughout the nation today.

Among the most frequently cited illegal practices is steering by real estate agents based on race or national origin. One example cited in the report concerns Kimberly Hobson-Hollowell and her family, who are African American. In their search for a home in the Detroit area, they were steered away from a white neighborhood in which they had expressed interest, and were sold a home in an area with a much higher African American population. After the N.F.H.A. filed a complaint against the company, Century 21 Town and Country, the family filed its own complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Steering techniques, however, may not be obvious to prospective purchasers or renters.

They tend, however, to be consistent. In general, whites in the study were shown homes in largely white neighborhoods, while African Americans were shown houses in primarily African American neighborhoods, and Latinos in mostly Latino neighborhoods. In the investigation, teams of testers were used, one white and one African American or Latino. Teams would contact the same real estate firm, having previously been assigned similar information regarding housing needs, employment history and financial information. The African Americans and Latinos presented themselves to agents as more qualified than the white testers because they had a higher income or more money for a down payment.

Three patterns of discrimination emerged from the investigation. Almost a quarter of the time, African American and Latino testers were refused appointments or were offered only limited service by the agents. In some cases, messages left for agents were never returned. In other instances, appointments were made but the agent did not appear. White testers were shown numerous homes, whereas Latino or African American testers were shown few or none. In Marietta, Ga., a white tester asked to see a home in the predominantly African American community of Stone Mountain, but was told by the agent that she would not want to live there. Instead, she was shown homes in largely white communities. Similarly, agents showed Latino and African American testers only a few homes, and then suggested they do their own searching. Additionally, the African American and Latino testers in many cases were required to produce financial information beforehand, while the white testers were not.

Real estate agents also used remarks about schools to indicate what the report calls a proxy, or code, for the racial or ethnic composition of a neighborhood. Thus, some agents told white testers to avoid certain areas because of the schools alone. Some of the most blatant school-based steering occurred in Tarrytown, N.Y., which has a large Latino population. Whites were told that schools there were bad, but Latino home seekers were told the schools were good. Commenting on this aspect of discrimination, the report notes that segregated schools reinforce the segregated nature of many neighborhoods. By contrast, studies suggest that students of various races and ethnic backgrounds who are exposed to diversity show greater social and intellectual development.

Advocates are hampered in their efforts to combat housing discrimination by the federal government’s failure to allocate sufficient resources for the enforcement of the Fair Housing Act. Because of inadequate funding over the past five years, 10 fair housing organizations around the country were forced to close their doors. Currently, the government grants less than $20 million a year to HUD’s Fair Housing Initiatives Program, a sum that the report says shows lack of commitment to the program.

Moreover, the Bush administration has proposed even less funding for fiscal year 2007. With increasing evidence of discrimination revealed in the report, the act’s effectiveness is limited. The shortfall of funding also reveals not only the administration’s lack of commitment, but also its broader budget prioritiesunderscored in a recent tax break bill that will benefit primarily those in the highest income brackets. The administration needs to do more to support a program that, if properly funded, could help eliminate at least one expression of racism in a key aspect of American life.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Pope Francis listens to a question from Vera Shcherbakova of the Itar-Tass news agency while talking with journalists aboard his flight from Cairo to Rome April 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
The situation in North Korea, he added, has been heated for a long time, "but now it seems it has heated up too much, no?"
Gerard O'ConnellApril 29, 2017
Pope Francis greets children dressed as pharaohs and in traditional dress as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo April 29. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
Francis took the risk, trusting in God. His decision transmitted a message of hope on the political front to all Egyptians, Christians and Muslims alike, who are well aware that their country is today a target for ISIS terrorists and is engaged in a battle against terrorism.
Gerard O'ConnellApril 29, 2017
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo April 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
The only kind of fanaticism that is acceptable to God is being fanatical about loving and helping others, Pope Francis said on his final day in Egypt.
U.S. President Donald Trump talks to journalists in the Oval Office at the White House on March 24 after the American Health Care Act was pulled before a vote. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)
Predictably Mr. Trump has also clashed with the Catholic Church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on many of the policies he has promoted during his first 100 days.
Kevin ClarkeApril 28, 2017