Race May Be Bigger Issue For Housing

August 31, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Although the overall number of complaints filed last year with the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan was less than in 2003, the number of complaints that alleged racial discrimination regarding housing matters was up quite a bit from three years earlier.

Complaints totaled 148 last year, down from the 153 in 2003. But half of the 2006 complaints, 74, were filed on racial grounds. Fifty-four of those were made in 2003 for 35 percent of all grievances recorded that year.

All but a handful of the complaints were made concerning transactions in KentCounty. Almost all were over renting. And the reason why racial discrimination became a bigger issue last year remains a mystery today.

“With regards to race, I can’t really put my finger on what exactly would explain that,” said Nancy Haynes, executive director of the FairHousingCenter

The Department of Housing and Urban Development did a study a few years ago and found out that less than 1 percent of those who were discriminated against in a transaction realized it. So generally, Haynes said, unless something blatant happens, most people have no idea they’ve been discriminated against. Adding to that situation is the reality that not all of those who are aware they’ve been victimized are willing to make an effort to file a complaint.

Haynes said she hopes the grievances filed with the FairHousingCenter represent more than 1 percent. But what the study tells Haynes is that the true number of discriminating incidents is likely to be much higher than the number of complaints that have been made.

“I think we have a lot of work to do. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t know if this even represents 1 percent of what’s going on in West Michigan,” she said.

“We’ve got a long way to go before I can start looking at a decrease in complaints as a positive, because I think we’ve got to hit that tipping point where we are actually receiving enough complaints, and people are aware of their rights and their obligations under the law, and they’re complying. So then a decrease in the number of complaints actually reflects a decrease in the occurrence of discrimination. But I think we’ve got a ways to go before we get there.”

Haynes said the federal government, most notably in the form of HUD, has done little to fight housing discrimination over the past decade. Under the present administration, HUD has been ordered to promote a society where everyone should strive to be a homeowner, and Haynes thinks that is a bad idea.

“Not everyone should own a home. There are people who should rent, and renting shouldn’t be frowned upon. Sub-prime credit is a good thing. But there are limits to that, and I think we’re starting to see that play out,” she said.

“HUD did do that study, and I give it even more weight than I normally would because HUD doesn’t usually try to help independent fair housing centers. But when HUD found that less than 1 percent of victims even know they’ve been discriminated against, it really carries a lot of weight, because they’re usually very conservative with those kind of numbers.”

Rental transactions were named in all but 14 of the 148 complaints filed last year and typically account for most filings. In comparison, only a dozen grievances were made regarding housing sales in 2006, and just a single complaint was filed over a mortgage last year.

Claims that mortgage lenders were discriminating against people of color made front-page news a few years ago. Haynes said the major complaint from minorities wasn’t about being denied a home loan. Instead, they found they were being charged higher rates than whites.

“A lawyer, a doctor or a priest has a fiduciary duty not to take advantage of someone, but brokers don’t. So if they take advantage of every person they can, as long as they’re not perpetuating fraud, there is no recourse,” said Haynes of predatory lenders.

“I think what is happening with mortgages is not based on race or national origin or anything else. If they can squeeze more money out of someone or generate more fees, it doesn’t matter what your skin color is, if you’re married or single, or if you have children. If you’re inclined to do that, then you’re going to take advantage of anyone that you can.”

Haynes said if there is any chance to eliminate housing grievances, it has to come from both sides of a transaction’s aisle. Realtors can’t always rely on their assumptions when they propose a deal, such as presuming where someone should live and only showing housing options in that location. Consumers need to arm themselves with knowledge of the market and be aware of the pitfalls that may be awaiting them.

Haynes also said the FairHousingCenter has more work to do in this area.

“We have to have the capacity to handle the complaints that come in and get the word out to the general public as to what their rights are under fair housing law,” she said. “I think we need to make people aware of what rights they have and of the services the FairHousingCenter offers at no charge.”     

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