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.

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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.

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