Spurred by the death of George Floyd, protests across the country have rekindled attention on the Black Lives Matter movement and racial inequities involving policing practices and the criminal justice system. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus crisis, the movement has also drawn attention to broader issues of systemic racism in healthcare, employment, and housing.
The fight against racial discrimination and segregation was one of the main reasons that the federal Fair Housing Act was passed more than 50 years ago. When the landmark legislation was passed in 1968, Congress declared that ensuring fair housing throughout the United States was a national policy of the “highest priority.” The goal of the new law was to replace racially segregated neighborhoods with “truly integrated and balanced living patterns.”
In the years that have passed since then, the number of complaints of race discrimination, which once held the top spot, have steadily decreased. In the meantime, the number of disability discrimination complaints have steadily increased, now accounting for more than half of all formal fair housing complaints.
Some see the decreasing number of race discrimination complaints as a sign of progress to achieve equal housing opportunities regardless of race. But others say the country still has far to go to eliminate racial discrimination in housing. Though it’s rare to hear reports of blatantly racist practices, fair housing advocates believe racial discrimination has simply gone underground, replaced by more subtle forms of discrimination that are more difficult to detect.
Example: A June 2020 study by a research team from Suffolk University Law School found that Greater Boston landlords and agents discriminate against Black renters and those with Section 8 housing vouchers, illegally shutting out qualified renters.
According to researchers, the study revealed that housing providers, mostly real estate brokers, showed Black testers about half the number of apartments they showed to white testers. They told white testers that more units were available, showed them more units, offered them more incentives to rent, and made more positive comments about the units.
Overall, the study showed that Black testers faced discrimination in 71 percent of the tests (for example: not being able to make an appointment, not being offered an application, not being offered financial incentives, like a free parking space or rental discount, that were offered to white testers). When agents dealt with Black testers, the incidence of “ghosting”—cutting off communication—was much higher. White testers continued to hear back from agents 92 percent of the time. Black testers heard back only 62 percent of the time.
The testing also uncovered high levels of discrimination against people with Section 8 housing vouchers, regardless of race. Ninety percent of the testers who indicated they were using a voucher faced discriminatory behavior from a rental agent (such as cutting off communication with the tester, not offering a rental application, not setting up an appointment to visit properties).
“The COVID-19 crisis and killing of George Floyd and so many other unarmed Black people has shone a bright light on the negative effects of the structural racism that has always existed in our country. This is a problem right here in our own community,” said Law Professor William Berman, director of Suffolk Law’s testing program.
Whatever your views in this volatile political climate, it’s essential to remember that multifamily housing communities and other housing providers have a duty to comply with longstanding fair housing laws banning discrimination based on race and color.
In this lesson, we’ll review fair housing requirements and offer six rules to help you fulfill your obligation to prevent race discrimination at your community. Then you can take the Coach’s Quiz to see how much you’ve learned.
WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) forbids housing discrimination because of race or color, national origin, religion, gender, disability, and familial status (having children under age 18). The law applies to rental, sales, lending, and other housing transactions.
With respect to rental housing, the FHA declares certain practices to be unlawful when based on race and color-and any other protected characteristic. Among the prohibited practices are:
- Making housing unavailable by excluding or otherwise denying housing;
- Imposing different terms, conditions, or privileges for rental, such as higher rental payments or fees, more stringent screening criteria, or different housing services;
- Making discriminatory statements, including advertising;
- Misrepresenting the availability of rental units;
- Threatening, harassing, or retaliating against anyone for exercising their rights under fair housing law.
Tip: Anyone who experiences discrimination because of race or color may pursue a fair housing claim—whether or not she’s a member of a minority group. Early court cases established that white residents may make claims of racial discrimination based on a denial of their right to associate with African Americans. Allegations of fair housing violations have been brought by interracial couples and the parents of biracial children, as well as white residents who were subjected to discrimination because of the race of their family members, friends, or guests.
SIX RULES TO FOLLOW FOR PREVENTING RACE DISCRIMINATION
Rule #1: Keep Race Out of the Leasing Process
Don’t allow race to play any part in decisions about who may live in your community. Under the FHA, it’s unlawful to deny housing or treat people differently based on their race or color. Discriminatory conduct can be overt or subtle—it’s just as unlawful to blatantly refuse to rent to African-American prospects as it is to treat them differently than whites by misrepresenting availability, quoting higher rent requirements, or applying more stringent screening criteria.
Example: In June 2020, HUD announced that it approved a $35,000 settlement resolving claims of racial discrimination at a multifamily community on Long Island, N.Y. Specifically, the complaint alleged that the employees treated white testers posing as prospective residents who were inquiring about apartments more favorably than Black testers posing as prospective residents.
A fair housing organization filed the HUD complaint after several African Americans reported that they believed they were denied the opportunity to rent apartments at the community because of their race. As a result, the organization conducted fair housing testing using white and Black testers who posed as prospective renters. According to the complaint, the organization’s investigation showed that white testers received more favorable treatment, including being told about the upcoming availability of units, while Black testers were told that there was a long waiting list and that no units were available. The owners denied the allegations but agreed to settle the complaint.
“The color of a person’s skin shouldn’t determine whether they have the opportunity to obtain a place to live,” Anna María Farías, Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said. “That type of discriminatory treatment is unacceptable, and today’s settlement reaffirms HUD’s commitment to taking appropriate action when housing providers violate the law.”
Example: In March 2020, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) announced a $300,000 settlement to resolve a fair housing case against the owners, broker, and building superintendent of a 48-unit community in a predominantly white neighborhood in Brooklyn. The lawsuit, filed by the FHJC and five African-American testers, alleged that the community racially discriminated against African-American prospects in violation of federal, state, and local fair housing laws. According to the FHJC, its investigation found that African-American and white testers were treated very differently based on race. The FHJC alleged that for years, white testers were repeatedly shown available apartments at the building while no African-American testers ever saw an apartment. The defendants denied liability but agreed to the settlement.
FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiburg, “African-American renters and home buyers continue to face persistent and pervasive racial discrimination in housing fifty-two years after the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act. Over the next few years, the FHJC will focus more of its investigative and enforcement resources on ferreting out racially discriminatory housing practices throughout the New York City region.”
Example: In December 2019, the South Suburban Housing Center (SSHC), a regional fair housing agency serving the south metropolitan Chicago area, announced that it filed a lawsuit accusing the owners and managing broker of a community in the metropolitan Chicago area of race discrimination. Specifically, the complaint alleged that the defendants refused to make appointments to show available apartments to African-American prospects and misrepresented the availability of housing to an African-American prospects.
According to SSHC, its fair housing investigation showed that white prospects responding to the community’s online apartment availability ads were able to call and schedule appointments, see the available apartment, and were encouraged to submit applications. When equally qualified African-American prospects responded to the online ads, SSHC said, they were not able to obtain the address of the unit, confirm or set up times to view, and in one instance were falsely told the unit was no longer available.
“Defendants’ actions in not allowing qualified African-American renters to literally get inside the door to apply for their advertised apartment, is the dramatic evidence that compelled SSHC to file this complaint,” SSHC Executive Director John Petruszak said.